NCAA coronavirus response: Eight outstanding questions about where college sports goes from here

By the time the Big 12 Tournament was canceled Thursday morning, only the ball boys were shooting. Call it the last pickup game of the season.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard was on the court, too, taking a souvenir photo with officials for a game that would never be played.

This was the end, for now.

“When I was a kid, the last game of the night, they turned the lights off at the rec center or the park if you lost or didn’t have next,” Beard told CBS Sports. “I just kind of remembered why we all got into this. I had a shallow part of my stomach. I just wanted to play today.”

That describes the country at the moment. We all just want to play or watch or bet or drink or just fall in love with March Madness all over again.

That hook-up is not going to happen until next year. We hope. Even a day later, basketball seems so far away.

The NCAA made the right decision in canceling its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments for the first time. It’s the future that is so scary. There isn’t one at the moment. Not one we can see clearly.

Thursday was The Day Sports Died. Almost everywhere. It was also another case of American hubris: Coronavirus didn’t truly become a big deal in the country until sports were canceled and two NBA players, plus actor Tom Hanks, contracted the virus.

By Thursday afternoon, the only live action available was golf and combat sports. By Thursday evening, even golf was gone.

Where’s the bracket busting in that?

In shutting down all winter and spring college sports for the remainder of their seasons, there are more questions than there is closure.

Here’s an early road map to that future without a clear destination.

What’s next? Football, basically. But before we get into that, it’s worth pointing out the NCAA took the most drastic (also sensible) measures of any of the sports leagues.

MLB is delaying the start of its season two weeks. The NBA and NHL have suspended their seasons indefinitely. MLS is putting its season on a 30-day pause. The PGA Tour canceling three events, plus Augusta National postponing the Masters, will leave fans without golf for at least a month.

The NCAA essentially ended its 2019-20 season with no sports being played until the fall. No championships in any remaining sport, including perhaps its best event of the year: the College World Series. That is far more cautionary than professional leagues.

By canceling events, the NCAA is being more than prudent. That’s the point. It’s possible during this discussion to both do the right thing and overreact. If humans don’t interact in large gatherings, epidemics tend to die out.

What about the seniors? When the Ivy League canceled the remainder of its springs sports earlier this week, the immediate reaction was that seniors in those sports should be granted an extra year of eligibility. This being the Ivy League, a lot of them may have a decision between Goldman Sachs and another season of gassers.

Elsewhere, it’s more complicated. If spring-semester seniors are allowed another year of eligibility, someone has to pay for those scholarships. An athletic director at a Group of Five program told me his university couldn’t afford it.

In many cases, an extra year of eligibility would mean expanded rosters, too. The NCAA would have to temporarily change its rules to accommodate. Think of 20-person basketball rosters. Once again, someone has to pay for all that room, board, tuition and cost of attendance for all those fifth- and even sixth-year seniors.

The damage is already being measured in sadness. Kansas coach Bill Self was melancholy about his national player of the year candidate, senior Udoke Azubuike, who ended his sometimes injury-impacted career without playing in a conference tournament. “But we totally understand that right now we’re in a fact-finding mission to try to understand this,” Self said.

There could be Title IX considerations. If the men’s basketball team gets five seniors back and the women’s team gets none, that would be a gender equity issue.

Think about a sport like baseball with almost no full scholarships. That would be asking the players and/or their families to foot a large part of tuition for an unexpected additional year.

Then again, maybe nothing happens. Those seniors’ careers are done. Sometimes, life isn’t fair.

What about the transfer portal? The assumption is the transfer portal remains wide open during this uncertain period. In normal times, the next reckoning in that space would have been the end of spring practice. Players that lose out on position battles would have had a choice to make. Now, some of those choices — like the games themselves — are on hold.

But transfers have to assimilate, move, meet their teammates. More importantly, enroll and attend summer school. Will there even be summer school this year? 

What about recruiting? In normal times, head coaches aren’t allowed to go out and recruit until after spring practice. However, from April 15 through May 31, assistant coaches fan out across the country for the heart of the recruiting process. Spring is a big evaluation period. “It’s pretty dramatic,” said Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247Sports. “Huge time for these coaches.”

The SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC have suspended all on-campus and off-campus recruiting for the time being. Most likely, the upcoming evaluation period will be pushed back. There is already speculation December’s early signing period will be eliminated in Year 4 of its existence to allow recruits more time to decide.

As for right now, this is the time when coaches and recruits form relationships. It will be hard to judge a prospect’s character on Skype. The impact of missing on a recruit — in terms of talent or character — is sort of a minor point at the moment.

What about spring football practice? Michigan and Ohio State canceled their spring games. No biggie. Spring games are largely glorified scrimmages that essentially provide programming for conference networks. However, as conferences and schools cancel campus activities, these questions have been raised.

If and when a decision is made on the resumption of activities this year, will there be enough time to carve out a proper preparation for the football season? Spring practice allows for 15 practices spread out over a month or so. Players would be on campus anyway for summer school. For now, anytime up to July 1 seems to be is an option.

During this period, strength coaches basically are in charge of football programs. It’s their duty to groom players not only physically but mentally. It’s not clear if all teams are meeting or even conditioning. How does that factor into the timely resumption of play? Will coaches be allowed to be involved with instruction at this time if there is no spring football practice, limiting their preparation for the season?

What about grass roots basketball? The July evaluation period is the highlight of basketball recruiting calendar. Coaches flock to locations around the country for parts of the three-week evaluation period. There is plenty of AAU talent to scout. Las Vegas, with all its tournament events, is a hot bed. Coaches can watch but they can’t have face-to-face contact with the players.

This is the last time coaches can have contact with players until the September in-person contact period. If that recruiting calendar is to stay intact, we’re assuming the risk of the virus will be gone by July. Is that too much of an assumption?

What about the name, image and likeness battle? The NCAA likely bought itself some time in terms of controversial name, image and likeness and transfer legislation. The NIL working group was due to make recommendations to the NCAA Board of Directors by the end of April. With travel restrictions, will the board even meet in Indianapolis?

The NCAA is in a good place as it stands. The first NIL bill (in Florida) is expected to take effect July 1, 2021, once it is formally put into law. By that time, the NCAA will have enough runway to develop its own legislation with some help from the federal government. Friday is the last day for the Florida House and Senate to pass the bill.

I am told by several sources it is simply not practical to challenge the legality of what is now more than 30 NIL laws state-by-state.

What about the 2020 football season? It’s the next sport on the college calendar. It’s also less than six months away. Again, should we assume the virus is going to be eliminated or even slowed by then? Without football, we’re talking about impacting the foundation of the athletic budgets of 130 FBS schools.

Note that the U.S. has had a late start to the fight. Italy is spiking. The cases in China, by most reports, have plateaued.

Football is arguably the most intimate sport in the coronavirus discussion. Stadiums that seat 100,000 fans, 22 players banging heads in close proximity on every snap, dozens more standing together on both sidelines. We better make damn sure coronavirus is on the run before we start football again.

“We’re all going to be exposed [to the virus],” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “We’re not going to know we’ve been exposed until after we begin show symptoms. Sometimes that’s days later.”

God speed into that uncertain future.  

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