Q&A: NCAA president Mark Emmert on coronavirus, cancellations, challenges ahead

  • Senior college football writer
  • Author of seven books on college football
  • Graduate of the University of Georgia

On Thursday, the NCAA made the unprecedented decision to cancel its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, as well as championship events for spring sports, as the U.S. and other countries around the world try to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

For the first time since 1939, the NCAA men’s tournament won’t be played. Neither will the women’s tournament, College World Series, Frozen Four or national championship tournaments in other sports like swimming and diving, golf, track and field and tennis.

When last week started, NCAA president Mark Emmert could have never imagined that the governing body of college sports would be forced to cancel March Madness, an American staple, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emmert spoke with ESPN at length on what was supposed to be Selection Sunday about the difficult week and what’s next for American intercollegiate athletics:

Emmert provided a detailed explaining of what transpired once the NCAA was confronted with the growing concern around the COVID-19 pandemic

  • “We sent out [information about coronavirus] to the athletics community back in January. Brian Hainline, our medical director, was one of the first to say, ‘This is out there. It’s coming to America. We’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to be thoughtful. We’ve got to think about the appropriate protocols.’ He was communicating to all of our members by mid-January and subsequently again in February when this all started to evolve.

“Set aside all of the politics, the media and what was going on in the NBA and everything else, the medical information was changing very, very rapidly as everybody got their arms around this. If you think back two weeks or three weeks ago, we were getting quite confusing and sometimes even contradictory information from state, federal, local officials and policymakers. We weren’t even talking about a pandemic yet. [World Health Organization] hadn’t even declared it a pandemic at that stage. That’s why we put together our COVID-19 committee so we could sort through what was going on.”

  • “On Wednesday, which seems like a year ago, we were talking to the [COVID-19] advisory panel and getting really good information. We were incredibly fortunate to have Vivek Murthy, the 19th surgeon general of the U.S., on our board of governors and on the COVID-19 panel. We are completely convinced at 4 p.m. on Wednesday that we could conduct the championships without fans by controlling the sites effectively. One of the team members on our panel is the head of security for the U.S. Open, so he could help us think through event management. We thought we could control the perimeters and control the environment, and, as best as possible, travel because it’s mostly charter travel and buses one way or another. We felt really confident about it. We were feeling really, really good.”

  • “As we got into Wednesday evening, we saw a number of decisions being made or being considered at the state level around what we could and couldn’t do to host events in terms of the size of gatherings. It started to become clear that we may not be able to use all of the sites we’d intended, and we might have to have some alternatives.

“[NCAA vice president for men’s basketball] Danny Gavitt and his men’s and women’s teams did a really great job trying to identify alternative venues around the country where we could if we needed to move to different places. At that point, Wednesday it still looked like [the coronavirus outbreak] was in isolated areas like Seattle, places in California, and maybe Ohio and New York emerging as epicenters. We had rounds in a number of those places, but we were hopeful at that point that we could still manage the events and protect the kids and a small number of family members and the coaches.”

  • “One of the big data points that changed was that we were really hopeful that we could access testing enough so that we could test our student-athletes and coaches and make sure that we were good there. The communication started to come back that that may not be possible, that the testing protocols that were available were a little bit worse than we’d anticipated. The concerns about an NBA player being infected become another important data point. It wasn’t the trigger point, but it was an important data point.”

How concerning was the Rudy Gobert situation? [The Utah Jazz center became the first NBA player to test positive for COVID-19, which prompted the NBA to suspend its season.]

“It was like an exclamation point. It was like, ‘Yeah, this is real.'”

How much concern was there on Thursday morning that the NCAA might have to cancel the basketball tournaments?

“We had a few conversations [Wednesday] night, but by the time we get to work on Thursday morning, we realized that the possibility of an outbreak occurring among any one of our teams or staffs [was a possibility]. The other thing going on that morning was campus closures, and we didn’t know the sites where the women’s games were going to be played. We thought we might be having a women’s event at a campus that was in the midst of being closed down. That’s obviously not going to work, either.

“By the middle of the morning on Thursday, we were starting to realize that we may not well be able to do this as we’d envisioned just 18 hours earlier. We had Dr. Hainline talking to the CDC, and one of the doctors heavily involved in the testing process is on our [COVID-19] panel. They came back and said that we can’t get access to the testing we want and the timeline that we need.”

Did the NCAA consider using a smaller tournament format at one site?

“Danny started thinking about a shrunk-down tournament, where we could go to a single site. If we couldn’t use all of our sites or use our alternative sites, you have two options: You shrink the tournament down and shorten up the timeline and try to get ahead of the spread, instead of behind it. The other option is you do the opposite: You delay everything and try to push it behind the growth curve of the virus.

“The problems with doing a postponement became pretty self-evident. One, the projections coming out of the medical community increasingly became that the virus was going to grow, and the best projections that our medical teams have seen is that May and June will be epicenter time, not diminished time, as this gets spread around the country. The other thing is once you move into the spring, you’ve got a large number of schools that are not even holding classes, let alone having practices and having people on their campuses. We know that we would have graduation of seniors, and some seniors want to go professional. We would have seeded teams that wouldn’t have even been available to play. Danny’s committee would have made decisions based on who’s playing today, and that wouldn’t have been who was playing when the tournament started.

“After a lot of assessment, Dan and his team came back and said postponement doesn’t make sense. Then it became, ‘Can we play a shorter version? Can we do a Sweet 16? Can we squeeze it all into this first week and get it all done in the same place? All go to Atlanta and change the venues.'”

Why wouldn’t a 16-team tournament have worked in Atlanta for one weekend?

“We thought we would just test everybody. It was 16 teams and not that big of a deal. Can we make it work? And the answer was that we couldn’t make it work, either, under those circumstances. By the time we got through lunch on Thursday, it was becoming increasingly clear that there wasn’t a way to do this, where we could have great confidence that we weren’t going to have a case break out. Once you have a case break out, how you handle that becomes incredibly disruptive to a tournament. We’re dealing with students, obviously, and we’re going to do everything we can to protect them. So we made the very, very difficult decision over the next handful of hours.”

Was the lack of available testing the most important factor in canceling the tournaments?

“It was certainly a huge part of it. I wouldn’t assign this [decision to cancel] to any one thing. It was a constellation of issues. It was the constantly changing growth curve on the epidemic, the changing policies at the state level that were constantly moving, the closure of campuses, the realization that we couldn’t test every athlete and their family and coaches in as timely of a manner as we had hoped. There were some logistical issues too. It was a combination of all of those things.

“It was just availability of the testing. I’m not trying to throw anyone under the bus. You’re talking about a very limited resource-these test kits. I’m not a public health official, but you’ve got this very scarce resource right now. Whether it should be scarce or not is another question, but it is scarce. And here you’re talking about otherwise really, really healthy people, and should you take that scarce resource and test otherwise 19-year-olds? Some of the public health officials were saying that’s not a best use of this resource, and we were not going to have access to what we thought we needed. That was just one data point.”

Was having a player or coach test positive and then being quarantined potentially thousands of miles from home a concern, as well?

“That was part of the logistical problem. What do you do if a kid or a coach or a brother or a sister tests positive and how do you handle that and still run the tournament forward? Do you forfeit that one game? It becomes a logistical nightmare.”

The NCAA Board of Governors ultimately voted to cancel the tournaments and championship events for spring sports. Was there much debate during that call?

“This was hardly a debate. We explained we had several issues to discuss, but the first one was to decide whether we call this off. To everyone on the call, it was almost surreal to say we’re going to cancel our tournaments. It’s almost impossible for all of us to imagine doing that and what it meant and what it was going to feel like for these coaches and these kids. We had so many great stories in men’s basketball alone. But it was all of our tournaments, the Frozen Four and gymnastics and everything. It was just awful, there’s no getting around it. It was an awful circumstance.”

Obviously, the safety of families, coaches and student-athletes is paramount, but was there any concern about liability if there was an outbreak at a game?

“It wasn’t really a discussion point. We tried, in all of these conversations, to have it be first and foremost about what’s the right thing to do for our students, but also for the broader public. I was proud of the Board of Governors. We clearly were willing to make decisions that had huge negative financial impact. We get 85% of our revenue from the men’s basketball tournament, and when you say you’re not going to have it, that’s a serious business decision. But it wasn’t ever discussed as a business decision. It was always discussed as a public health issue, what’s the right thing, what are our values, what do we stand for, how are we going to make a choice? There was a lot of conversation about what does this mean for all the people whose livelihoods are dependent on college sports. I don’t mean me or anybody at the NCAA. I mean the guy selling hot dogs, the people who make T-shirts, the people who run the facilities and the hourly workers who are going to lose their jobs. That’s the part we worry about, besides obviously our students.”

How does the NCAA make up for the lost revenue?

“We’re working on that right now, as you can imagine. That’s been a big part of the weekend conversation. I’ve got an extraordinarily good senior management team. I was so impressed with their poise and professionalism this past week. I’ve always been proud of them, but never more so than this past week. This is the worst week of my professional life by far, and everybody around me from Dan on down were all just fabulous. I couldn’t ask for more. Now we’re going to have to do some more hard things to figure out how we move forward. We’ve got some cash reserves and a variety of things, but is it going to be painful? Absolutely. It’s going to be very hard.”

When the NCAA made the decision to go ahead and cancel championship events like baseball, softball, tennis and golf, what was the thinking behind that?

“The same logic was being applied. We were looking at the science and evaluating the advice we were getting. Where was this [epidemic] likely to go? What was the spread rate looking like? What are the best projections coming out from the best scientists? And everything indicates, and the data looks clearer today than it did on Thursday, that the peak of spread is probably May-June, which is exactly when we’re doing spring championships. We had a number of schools, at that point 100 or more, shutting down. Some conferences, like the Ivy League and the MAC, had shut down spring sports. Most of the conferences by Thursday had suspended their spring games at least through the end of April. We were faced with the same sort of logistical challenges. A number of people wanted to get some certainty, as painful as it was. Rather than saying let’s try to squeeze this out and then three weeks from now, after people had been struggling to make it work, saying this must work. After having another good discussion with the Board of Governors, it became a really, really hard and painful but fairly self-evident decision.”

Was there an issue of fairness in reaching this decision? If the NCAA had to cancel the basketball tournaments, would it have been fair to proceed with championships in other sports. Was that a consideration?

“It’s a good question, but that wasn’t really a part of the discussion. We would have loved to still pull off any of these. If we could have made spring sports work without concerns about public health, we would have done it. But if you’re going to eliminate half of the season already, because we were just getting into conference play in a lot of these sports, and you’re going to eliminate half of the conference season and you don’t even know if you can restart then, it’s difficult. You’ve got conferences struggling to do anything at that stage because they’re shut down. We have a lot of schools that I suspect aren’t going to re-open at all this academic year. You have to remember that I work for university presidents, and they’re all looking at their campus going, ‘Wow, I don’t even know if I can hold class here. How can I have baseball or softball?'”

Does the NCAA have insurance to cover lost revenue from the basketball tournaments?

“Yes, we have disruption insurance like most organizations do. It doesn’t begin to cover the losses, but will it be helpful and help mitigate some of this? Sure.”

Will the insurance help cover individual conferences for lost revenue?

“Our policy does not cover the conferences. Each conference, to varying degrees, have their own individual policies. There are 32 business models for that.”

An NCAA committee has explored giving seniors in spring sports an extra year of eligibility, while still examining whether that’s possible with winter sports. Is that something that’s on the table?

“We asked the Board of Governors on Thursday to do three things: Give us their views and assessments on winter championships, which they obviously agreed to cancel, and spring sports, which they obviously decided should be canceled as well. We also asked them to instruct the three divisions to get together as fast as they can and find rules that could be modified or waived that would eliminate as many of the difficulties that this is going to cause that we could possibly do for students and campuses. The Division I council, for example, immediately started meeting and met most of Friday and over the weekend, and started talking about what they can and cannot do. They immediately determined that there should be a dead period for recruiting. They said everybody should stop recruiting immediately. They didn’t want coaches going out and meeting with players, and they didn’t want players and their families coming to campus. They also said they intend to provide further eligibility opportunities for seniors in spring sports.”

How would that work?

“They have not figured out the exact mechanism for that. They are examining what makes sense for winter sports. It’s obviously less clear for winter sports. Almost all of the winter sports were done. We still had a lot of basketball left to be played in the tournaments, but all regular conference play was done. There are a lot of different perspectives on it. Obviously, taking away a tournament opportunity from a young man or young woman is just brutal. On the other hand, who is going to get an extra year? Is it everybody, whether they were going to make the tournament or not? Is it only those who are going to continue as graduate students? Is it going to come at the cost of freshmen who were just recruited and they’re going to come in and not going to get to play? Are they going to extend scholarships and offer more scholarships, and can every school afford that? There are a lot of issues and a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

Would every NCAA member institution be in a financial position to take on dozens of more scholarships for the returning seniors? Doesn’t it have to be none or all for competitive balance?

“That’s one of the issues being debated. I think one of the things I haven’t heard discussed yet because it doesn’t seem directly sports-related, and it’s more important than sports, is that the next 12 months are going to be extremely hard on a lot of colleges and universities, especially small colleges that aren’t going to have tuition revenue. They’re going to have high costs because they sent their students away, but they still have all of their costs. They’re not going to have any revenue from their endowments because of the crash of the stock market. The revenue from the tournaments isn’t going to be there, and the revenue from us is unlikely to be as big as it’s been in the past. So then to turn around and say, ‘By the way, we’re going to increase the cost of your student athletics program,’ that’s a challenge. For the big schools that are the high-revenue institutions, that’s a whole different deal. You’ve to remember that college sports is, of course, something 1,100 different schools do and the business models for all of them are very different.”

What were Emmert’s feelings on Selection Sunday, knowing there are no NCAA basketball tournaments?

“It’s so many levels of awful. It’s hard to describe to be honest. I called a handful of coaches Friday just because I felt the need to call them and tell them how disappointed I was, and I could only imagine what they went through. They were all great and talked about how they understood. But they talked about having to sit down with their team and talking through it and crying together. To have some of them not get to experience this thing that they’ve dreamed about all of their lives it’s just hard to imagine. If you had told me we’d have a year without March Madness, without the College World Series in Omaha or Oklahoma City, I would have laughed. College sports is such an integral and iconic part of American society, it’s just really gut-wrenching to imagine it stopping, even for a short period of time.”

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