COVID-19 News Sends Sprint Center Reeling, Thoughts Wandering
KANSAS CITY – The week of the Big 12 basketball tournament is one of my favorite times of the year. The chance to cover and watch hoops non-stop, to settle into place for a few days, to renew old friendships and make new ones are all part of the allure. Wednesday, though, was a day when that nirvana was interrupted by a seemingly non-stop barrage of news and changes that will forever be etched into memory.
It all really started the day before, when West Virginia president E. Gordon Gee announced the halting of most in-person classes at WVU due to concerns over the potential spread of COVID-19, or coronavirus. That sent me off to gather reactions from WVU administrators in KC, including director of athletics Shane Lyons. While it was early, the questions started bouncing. How will this affect athletics at WVU? Will scheduled events like basketball games, the Big 12 gymnastics championships (set for March 21) and others on campus remain in place?
As stories were written and filed around midnight, more thoughts started creeping in. How would athletes and students, some from foreign countries, deal with the closing of the school? Would the NCAA, which had so far punted the decision concerning changes or cancellation of sports back to the schools and conferences, react?
Against this, of course, was the larger backdrop of the effects of the COVID-19 epidemic. Just trying to separate fact from fiction was an effort in itself, and one that could easily gobble up a lot of time. There was also the nagging thought that covering sports at this point in time wasn’t the best thing to be doing, although I couldn’t think of anything else that I could immediately do.
So, I departed for the Sprint Center for West Virginia’s Wednesday 9:00 a.m. shootaround, and things seemed OK, at least for the moment. Despite being kept back from the usual courtside shooting positions, the session appeared normal. Post-practice interviews, although conducted at more than arm’s length from a podium, were different from the usual practice of one-in-one sessions in the locker room, but still OK.
Then, it all went sideways.
The NCAA came out with twin statements first recommending fan-less events, followed quickly by another announcing that fans would not be permitted at any NCAA championships. That sent shockwaves among the media in attendance, and from the coaches and players who were interviewed at the podium later in the day. That the organization would move so quickly was a surprise. That decision also immediately engendered the thought, followed quickly by some off-the-record confirmations, that the Big 12 would make similar changes to its championship. It also resulted in some speculation as to whether media was included in the “essential personnel” that would be allowed to view the games.
It took awhile, though, for the league to gather information and make a move. WVU likewise remained silent, with both organizations engaged in discussions and information-gathering sessions that were entirely necessary, but still tough to wait out. Finally, as the Oklahoma State-Iowa State game was tipping off around 6:05 p.m. local time, word filtered that league Commissioner Bob Bowlsby would be holding a press conference in the media room.
That, of course, set off a flow of reporters to that location, and probably clued in the more observant fans in the Sprint Center that something was afoot, as media row was mostly abandoned. Then Bowlsby set off an avalanche of conference activity with his announcement that all Big 12 Championships, including the men’s and women’s hoops tournaments, would not allow general public viewing, starting with Thursday’s basketball events. Only 125 tickets per team would be allocated. That in turn led most college basketball leagues to follow suit with similar edicts.
As word spread via social media in the Sprint Center, reactions were mostly negative.
“Are you from the Big 12?” one fan wearing a Florida Gators shirt asked me upon spotting my credentials. “That was a terrible decision. What are they doing?”
Besides wondering why a guy in a Florida shirt was at the Big 12 Championships, I offered no defense. But that reaction was a common one among the fans in attendance, which I estimated at about 8-9,000. (The league didn’t provide an official attendance number). It also set off a mostly random train of thought.
How would players react? Would those who excel in practice in empty facilities be more likely to play well? Would those that feed off the emotion and energy of a crowd be negatively affected?
How do you clean basketballs without staining them?
With only 125 family members or selected fans allowed in per team, would there still be a public address announcer? (Hey, I told you this was random.)
Who at each school would be allocated the difficult task of doling out the 125 tickets? That’s a job I sure wouldn’t want.
Would Big 12 fans just move across the street to the Power & Light District and its cluster of bars and restaurants, and just move the problem elsewhere? (Obviously, that’s beyond the league’s power to control.) Still, there’s no way the Kansas City airport, a modest facility that has one of its three smallish terminals shut down for new construction, would be able to get everyone out onto changed flights on Thursday. Many people likely have no choice to remain in town. Would they all self-quarantine in their hotel rooms? Unlikely.
Was this just a first step? Might the event, or the NCAA Tournament, be cancelled outright by either a further spread of infections or under the weight of the momentum of cancellations and suspensions, which over the next couple of hours grew to include the NBA regular season and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) Convention?
Every couple of minutes, another announcement of the banning of fans from athletics events, or the outright cancellation of athletics events for the next few weeks, continued to roll out. (For some reason, the news of Tom Hanks’ and Rita Wilson’s contraction of the virus was big news among the assembled media, too, prompting cogitations on the reaction if a Kardashian or J-Lo were to become infected.) By the end of the first game, it was probably easier to list those leagues and schools that had no announcements than try to keep up with the tidal wave of change sweeping the landscape.
More thoughts continued to scroll across my mind feed, not unlike that of Twitter or Facebook.
Can WVU, or any school, that has suspended in-person classes and is essentially closed in its physical state, continue to host athletic events on campus? If so, might they be safer staying on a campus with few people, rather than dispersing to their home states, then returning and possibly spreading the virus encountered elsewhere? Are practices — thinking of spring football in particular — reasonably safe, or do those get shut down too?
All of these questions had multiple levels to consider. What’s best for the student-athletes? Were any of the decisions made with an eye toward the PR or optics of the situation? I think most administrators do keep the good of the individual in mind, but it would be naive to think other considerations aren’t in play.
Then came the news that Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg had to leave the bench and go to the hospital after trying to coach through an obvious illness. While that turned out to be Influenza Type A, and not COVID-19, it was a stark reminder that the new virus might pop up anywhere.
Returning to my hotel, where media along with five of the 10 teams in the Big 12 Championship are headquartered, the lobby was buzzing. Confirmation was received that room cancellations, which had been going up earlier in the week, were now peaking. Fans (mostly Iowa State, but including a smattering of Mountaineers) were discussing the day’s events. Everyone, it seemed, had a personal story of how the crisis was affecting them.
As the day closed, I was also left to ponder the no-win situation in which administrators such as Bowlsby, Gee and Lyons found themselves in. No matter what their decisions, they were going to be criticized by some. Too slow, too fast, underreaction, overreaction — all of those adjectives were used to describe the calls that were made. It left me feeling sympathetic, because these are all, in my experience, good people doing a great job in the worst of circumstances. There aren’t any perfect answers out there.
As my head finally hit the pillow, one more thought crossed the cluttered landscape of my mind. What will tomorrow bring? We’re about to find out.