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Why playing NCAA games without fans is unfortunate but necessary move

Media is restricted from court side as Kansas practices for the Big 12 men's basketball tournament Wednesday at Sprint Center in in Kansas City, Mo. [AP Photo/Orlin Wagner]
Media is restricted from court side as Kansas practices for the Big 12 men's basketball tournament Wednesday at Sprint Center in in Kansas City, Mo. [AP Photo/Orlin Wagner]

Our sports world shuddered Wednesday afternoon.

It happened at 3:31 p.m. Oklahoma time.

Did you feel it?

That's when the NCAA announced its upcoming championship events would be played without fans. That includes all rounds and all games of the men's and women's basketball tournaments. Only the teams, essential staff and limited family members will be allowed because of the ongoing public health crisis involving the coronavirus.

"While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sports," NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement, "my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States."

Welcome to March Sadness.

Before the day was done, the Thunder's game against the Jazz had been postponed, Utah big man Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the virus and the NBA had suspended its season.

"The NBA will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic," the league said in a statement.

All of this absolutely stinks. The NBA was just hitting the stretch run of the regular season while the NCAA is on the cusp of its three-week hoopstravaganza. While we have to think the NBA season will resume at some point, the NCAA basketball tournaments, among the biggest sporting events in the country, will be played in nearly empty arenas. Some players who've dreamed of this moment all their lives will be faced with a reality much quieter than their dreams. Some fans who've waited years for their teams to get into the tournament will be forced to watch at home.

It's unfortunate.

But it's necessary.

This was absolutely the right move by the NCAA. The NBA, too. These are just the first monumental shifts in our sports world as we try to get a handle on this virus, but there's a good chance they won't be the last ones. When you have a global pandemic involving a virus without a vaccine much less a cure, we must all be part of the efforts to help contain it.

That's why moves like the NCAA made are tough to swallow but easy to understand.

If the games are going on, why shouldn't fans be allowed to make their own decision to attend games or stay home?

Because this is about more than the people who would be in the arena. Of course, those folks would be of concern, too. If someone who's infected goes to a game — because of how this virus operates, they may not even be showing symptoms — they could infect numerous others.

That would still carry the virus out into the wider world.

That would compound the crisis by widening the outbreak.

Why not tell fans to be more vigilant?

Because they wouldn't be.

Listen, I have a high level of belief in what the human race can do, but we have become complacent when it comes to taking preventative measures. For example, we have a vaccine for the flu, a virus that kills tens of thousands of people every year, and yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports less than 50% of Americans 18 and older got a flu shot during the 2018-19 flu season.

So, we have a proven method to help people to avoid or at the very least lessen the impact of the flu, and more than half of all American adults don't get it.

Vigilance is a good idea, but it requires people to do it.

And please, don't get me started on how many people don't wash their hands regularly.

(If you leave the bathroom without using some soap and water, I'm looking at you.)

We aren't vigilant because we aren't worried. We believe every virus has a cure, every problem has a fix.

But this virus doesn't. If we allow it to spread, there won't be enough hospitals and medical professionals to treat people who need care — and as a result, more people will die.

Playing games in empty arenas, my friends, is a life-and-death issue. That's not hyperbole. That's truth.

I'm sure we'll make adjustments. The NCAA is already talking about moving games to smaller arenas so the emptiness isn't so vast. Maybe CBS can add FaceTime video of folks celebrating at home. This will be a tournament like no other, but we'll make it work.

The ground beneath our feet moved on Wednesday, but our sports world shuddered.

It didn't shutter.

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or Like her at or follow her at

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›