On Thursday, the NCAA made official the inevitable. For the first time since 1939, there will be no men's basketball tournament. And there won't be a women's basketball tournament, either. Amid the ongoing fears surrounding the spread of COVID-19, otherwise known as the coronavirus, the NCAA has canceled all remaining championship events this academic year.
To be clear, this is absolutely the right decision. The risks of spreading a deadly disease far outweigh the rewards of seeing our beloved basketball games.
But I must admit I'm sad.
I'm sad first and foremost for the players. Each year, the NCAA tournament features a couple dozen young talents who will go on to play in the NBA. But for the vast majority of players, appearing in the NCAA tournament will be the crowning achievement of their athletic careers. Yes, a blue-chip team typically cuts down the nets at the end, but is there another sport with a more storied history of underdog stories? Whether it's Sister Jean's Loyola-Chicago or Florida Gulf Coast's Dunk City, we celebrate a new Cinderella seemingly every March.
The Big Dance is the best postseason in American sports precisely because it is so unpredictable. Stop me if you said before the season that Cole Anthony and UNC would need to win the ACC tournament to qualify for the NCAAs? Or if you thought that redshirt sophomore Obi Toppin—who had no Division I offers at the end of high school—and the Dayton Flyers would have been in contention for a No. 1 seed? This season featured five different No. 1 teams by December, and top teams were knocked off their perches so regularly that it became hard to label even the unlikeliest win an upset. Every year, the NCAA tournament delivers, and this year had the potential to be exceptional.
I'm sad for all of the other people who devote their lives to the game. I'm sad for referees who put up with our endless complaints as they genuinely try to do their best. If I'm being honest, I'm even sad for the coaches. The frequent NCAA allegations and FBI investigations have left many fans with a sour taste, but again, the majority of coaches are dedicated to their schools and to their athletes in ways that rarely surface to the average fan. And I'm especially sad for the seasonal employees—the stadium vendors and ushers and parking lot attendants—who depend on the games to pay their bills. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has said that he'll take care of team employees affected by the NBA's temporary shutdown, and the NCAA—which collects about a billion dollars a year from the tournament—should follow suit.
Mostly, though, I'm sad for more selfish reasons. Like so many people, I love sports for their ability to bring people together. Despite all that divides us, Americans of all different beliefs and backgrounds stand shoulder to shoulder with each other in the stands. At games, we high-five—and sometimes even hug—complete strangers. We feel the euphoria of what can be accomplished when we work together. We share in the sadness when we don't quite live up to our own lofty expectations.
Although college basketball is by no means our nation's most popular sport, it does manage to capture the entire country's attention every March. I remember my seventh-grade English teacher in Tampa, Florida, pulling down the projector screen so that we could all watch the Gators' first-round game together. I remember her quickly changing it to To Kill a Mockingbird when she heard our principal shuffling down the hallway. I remember my Nana, who was a child in England during World War II and would clutch her rosary beads as German bombers flew by, filling out a bracket every year. For a national champion, Nana always chose a Catholic school.
If you went to a Kansas or a Kentucky or a Duke, you no doubt weep when your school's season comes to an end. But even if you didn't, you no doubt enjoy the opening weekend's invitation to sit on the couch for 16 hours a day and root for the underdog. I do that, too, and even better: Technically, it's my job. Every year, when I find my seat at press row for the Final Four, I send a picture message to my close friends that simply says, "Beats working."
From the Australian wildfires to the presidential election and now to the coronavirus, every day this year has felt like a month. Selfishly, I was looking forward to a month when the days could feel a little more normal.
But this is the true beauty of sports: They aren't an escape from life, they're a prism through which to understand it. Many Americans didn't realize the dangers of this disease until the NBA suspended its season. Now, we're all taking it a little more seriously. Even in their absence, sports are still helping to bring us together. But I sure will miss them this March.