COVID-19 Impacts March Madness, All College Athletics

Andy Berg Headshot

Wednesday proved historic and dramatic for the world of college athletics, as the escalating response to COVID-19 forced the NCAA to make radical changes to its tournaments, while entire conferences called an abrupt end to their seasons.

While the NCAA still plans to play all men’s and women’s March Madness games — slated to begin in Dayton, Ohio on March 17 — they’ll be doing so without fans present at the games. Meanwhile, the SEC, Big 10 and AAC have all cancelled their respective tournaments as of Thursday morning. 

"I have made the decision to conduct our upcoming championship events, including the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, with only essential staff and limited family in attendance," said NCAA president Mark Emmert in a statement.

"While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sports, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States. The decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes. We recognize the opportunity to compete in an NCAA national championship is an experience of a lifetime for the students and their families. Today, we will move forward and conduct championships consistent with the current information and will continue to monitor and make adjustments as needed."

Emmert also said that the NCAA is now looking at moving some games to smaller venues.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated and The Athletic, Emmert acknowledged the magnitude of the situation, as well as what athletics, and in particular the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, mean to the student-athletes.

“The one thing we have to make sure of is that these young men and women get to compete in a championship,” the NCAA president said in the interview. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime for them, and many of them will only get one crack at this. So if we can do the games without fans, it’s hardly ideal. But it’s way better than not having the championship games.”

While banning fans from one of America’s most beloved sporting events was big news, the world of college athletics was shaken to its core Wednesday, as schools across the country scrambled to respond to what the World Health Organization has now deemed a pandemic.

Many campuses followed the NCAA’s lead and announced that they’ll play all games as scheduled but to empty houses.

The Ivy League, which includes Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale, announced yesterday that it will cancel all athletics practices and competitions for the remainder of the academic year. Harvard went so far as to forfeit the Eastern College Athletic Conference hockey quarterfinal.

The New England Small College Athletic Conference, which includes Amherst College, Bowdoin College, Wesleyan University, Williams College, Bates College, Colby College, Hamilton College, Middlebury College, Trinity College, Tufts University and Connecticut College, has also decided to cancel its spring season.

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