In addition to my duties as a food safety lawyer here at OFT, I also run a website devoted to men’s college basketball. College basketball is not most popular sport in the world, but it does dominate the month of March with its conference tournaments, “bracketology,” Cinderellas, and the NCAA tournament. Put it all together, and it’s the extravaganza known as March Madness. I love it. In a dumb but real sense, I live for it.
But this March is different. Today, in response to the growing outbreak of COVID-19 cases across the United States (and the world), the NCAA announced that the tourney will still go forward—but without fans in attendance. Two weeks ago, this was unthinkable, but eventually it became inevitable. Full cancellation is still on the table.
In my work here at OFT, I track outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, which are far too common, but thankfully never at the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic. In my hobby-work at home, I relentlessly track and dissect the results of college basketball games. It also happens that I am married to an extremely smart epidemiologist.
None of this gives me any expertise, but it does give me a somewhat unusual perspective. From conversations with my wife, I have known with reasonable certainty since early February that COVID-19 would disrupt our civil society. The only question was how long it would take and how bad it would be. I was hoping we could get to April before things ramped up, but here we are.
Public officials are starting to treat this pandemic with the seriousness it deserves and requires. The NCAA has undoubtedly taken a correct first step by closing the tourney games to fans. This is not an appropriate time for anybody to be congregating together in crowds with tens of thousands of strangers, even for something as vitally important as college basketball. Everyone needs to do what they can to slow the spread of this disease so that our hospitals are not overwhelmed.
Nonetheless, as I write this the Big Ten tournament is going on in Indianapolis with fans in attendance. The Big East and Big 12 tournaments are apparently still planning to do the same.
These conferences need to do the right thing. They need to follow the NCAA’s lead and close the competitions to fans, at the very least. Anything less, in my opinion, would be actual madness.