Coronavirus afflicts competitors, fans with March Sadness

Photo courtesy NCAA

March is usually one of the busiest times of year for competitors and fans alike, particularly with college sports.

It’s when the college basketball season comes to a head with conference and then the NCAA Tournament, while baseball and softball make their moves into conference play. It’s also when most college programs hold at least some of their spring football practices. As for recruiting, it only stops when the NCAA or the conferences mandate coaches take a break.

However, as you likely already know, that’s not the case this year.

Valid concerns about limiting the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus all but shuttered NCAA athletics at least until April 1, and possibly if not probably for the rest of the 2019-20 season.

After all major conferences, including the SEC — where we know “It Means More” — halted play Thursday not only of their men’s basketball tournaments but also all play through March 30, the NCAA dropped the hammer by canceling all spring and winter championships that have not already been held.

That includes the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships at Albuquerque, N.M. where qualifying members of the Razorbacks men’s and women’s track teams were set to compete this weekend.

The SEC announcement came prior to the NCAA’s and gave some hope of a reevaluation and the possibility of play resuming in April. Hopefully, the coronavirus will be contained enough by then for that to happen, but at this moment, it seems unlikely. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The NCAA did not make a ruling on whether teams could continue to practice or make or receive recruiting visits.

To maintain an even playing field, the NCAA should make those decisions unilaterally, rather than leave it to the conferences or individual athletics programs. Maybe, the organization will soon.

In the mean time, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey suspended all on- and off-campus recruiting by SEC schools through March 30.

Sankey’s recruiting decision fits with the cancellation of athletic competition and is proper. It will hamper football recruiting some, but it leaves a short window for basketball coaches to finalize their recruiting classes. Basketball’s spring signing period opens April 15 and closes May 20, according to the NCAA’s website.

“We’ve limited the size clearly of on-campus events, and campuses are doing that individually, but I don’t have a prescriptive list right now around what’s going to happen with spring practice, spring football,” Sankey said of spring football practices in a press conference broadcast by the SEC Network.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has halted spring football practices.

The news of the cancellations weren’t shocking only because at nearly the same time the SEC and other conferences were announcing Wednesday night that fans would not be able to attend the rest of the games in the conference basketball tournaments, the NBA suspended its entire season until further notice when it was discovered that Utah Jazz players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell tested positive for the coronavirus.

At that point, it was only a matter of time for the dominos to fall. Most cancellations were announced by noon Thursday. The Big East was the exception. It stopped play of a game at halftime amid criticism from TV sports outlets. It’s no time to become socially and politically tone deaf when a pandemic is threatening the world.

Some are calling the cancellations an overreaction, and I personally hope that is the case but still saluting the decision-makers who acted prudently and responsibly in making the calls.

None of those games or championships are worth the life of even one person, much less creating an incubator effect for the athletes, coaches, staff, and media who would attend the games and later mingle in their social circles.

While the decisions made Thursday were absolutely the right ones, it certainly has brought a degree of March Sadness into this sports fan’s heart.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I didn’t have a Razorback game of some sort to look forward, too. Sure, in the dog days of summer after all the championships are complete, the wait might be a couple of months for football season. However,at least I know there’s a Razorback game on the horizon. I’m not sure if I can look that far ahead right now.

I have every hope the coronavirus will subside in time for the Arkansas’ football opener against Nevada on Sept. 5, but we have no guarantees.

Two days ago, my plan was to be writing about a Razorback basketball victory over South Carolina at this moment or about the Hogs’ SEC baseball opener at Mississippi State, not about a virus that is already taking a bite out of our freedom and no doubt will take more lives in the days to come.

Thursday was a sobering day, even when not thinking about how this virus is going to affect us in every realm possible.

It’s really just registering with me that I have seen Jimmy Whitt Jr., Adrio Bailey and probably Mason Jones suit up for the Razorbacks for the final time. I knew it was coming soon, but I didn’t expect it to be this quick.

Jones, of course, is a junior, but he may have played himself into professional basketball this year as the SEC’s co-MVP, whether it’s in the NBA or on one of the foreign circuits.

Likewise, we’ve probably seen the last homers by Heston Kjerstad and Casey Martin, who stand to be drafted high enough in the MLB Draft later this spring to bypass their senior seasons.

Like most Hog fans, though, my first love is Razorback football. This stands to be a very crucial spring for the Hogs as first-year head coach Sam Pittman and his staff get to know their inherited Razorbacks on the field. Practice is scheduled to begin Monday.

With Sankey leaving the decision about spring practice to the athletic directors, practice is assumed to be on for Pittman’s Razorbacks Monday until Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek announces a different decision or the NCAA steps in with a decree.

What an odd state of affairs.

I guess I’ve practiced a form of social distancing during March in the past by staying in to watch the Big Dance. I guess this year I’ll spend that time binge-watching or reading.

Anyone have some good suggestions for either?