By Mark Nagi
When you first heard about the Coronavirus, you probably didn’t think very much of it.
Far too often it has been a boy who cried wolf type situation when we are told about something that could affect out health.
But this is different.
Look, I’m not an epidemiologist, so the last thing I’m going to do is try to explain the Coronavirus. I just wash my hands and cough into the inside of my arm at the elbow and make sure I’m not chewing gum I find under a park bench.
Instead, I’m here to write about what this virus has done in the world of sports, specifically at the University of Tennessee.
This is the time of year when the Vols and Lady Vols are (hopefully) preparing for the NCAA basketball tournaments. Recently the Lady Vols competed in the SEC women’s tournament in Greenville, South Carolina. They lost in the quarterfinals and were hoping for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. So, they’ve been practicing and going about their business as normal.
That hasn’t been the case for Tennessee’s men’s basketball team. On Thursday, March 12 the Vols were in Nashville getting ready to play Alabama in the SEC men’s tournament, which had gotten underway the day before with two games.
The decision had already been made to continue the tournament with no spectators. But a couple of hours before the Vols and Crimson Tide were going to tip off, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey announced that the remainder of the tournament was canceled.
“If we would have gone out to play today (March 12), we would be really hoping that we were lucky that nothing would happen,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes told ESPN. “Now, we’ve made the right, safe decision.”
After 9/11, the SEC memorably dragged its feet, not canceling the weekend’s games until late in the workday on Thursday, more than two days after the attacks. I was working a WATE-TV at the time, and we had a crew that had driven all the way to Gainesville anticipating the Vols game against Florida. By the time they arrived late that afternoon, the games had been postponed.
This time, the SEC was basically in the middle of the pack. Just about every tournament was canceled nationwide.
We always hear about the welfare of the student-athlete, an argument that certainly has changed a great deal over the past decade. Only in 2020 is there real momentum to allow them to profit from their own likeness. The NCAA and its member conferences make so much money it’s ridiculous. This time, they appear to be doing the right thing (even if they came to that verdict kicking and screaming).
“I’m just happy because I do know that the right decision was made for those guys,” said Barnes about his players. “Because they really hadn’t had a voice in it, and the fact is they were wondering if we were going to do the right thing… I wanted them to know this was a precautionary decision which should be made. I didn’t want them to be alarmed, but I said I want them also to take it serious. I didn’t want them to think there was someone in this building right now that had the virus, but I said, ‘You have understand, this is very serious, and you’ve got to take it serious and not be kidding around about it, acting like you’re going to touch this guy’s stuff and that guy’s stuff. You’ve got to be serious about it.’”
The same day as the SEC tournament was canceled, the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were canceled, as well as all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships. This is truly unprecedented.
The annual Orange & White Game set for April 18 has been canceled. During a pandemic the last thing we need is a mass gathering of that many people.
Maybe things will be different in a month. That would be great, because no one wants the games to stop. It’s awful for the student-athletes and the fans that love to watch them play. And don’t forget about the people that rely on these games for their living.
For many of us, outside of our families, there are few things more important than Tennessee athletics.
But sometimes our ability to have that enjoyment is beyond our control.
Stay safe, everyone.
Mark Nagi is the author of “Decade of Dysfunction,” which takes an up close look at all that led to Tennessee’s crazy coaching search in 2017. The book is available on Amazon.