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Champions crowned, NCAA returns to pre-Covid problems

INDIANAPOLIS – In the early hours of Tuesday morning, as the task of dismantling this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game was underway – folding tables, lowering baskets, removing cardboard cutouts from fans – a worker with a large dry mop swept confetti into a pile.

It was hard, in a nearly empty arena, not to see poetry in the moment, as if last year’s rubbish could be swept up to be placed in the trash can of history.

This year’s tournament will be remembered, yes, for Gonzaga’s long run towards an unbeaten season that lasted 40 minutes less against a relentless Baylor side, who, without their own mid-season coronavirus break, would also have. pursued a perfect season.

But lasting memories of this pandemic season will be less about basketball than nasal swabs, wrecked games and mostly absent fans, and when the fig leaf that masked the exploitation of great college athletes. floated to the ground. like duct tape.

Still, there was something about leaving Lucas Oil Stadium that felt like stepping through a gate – not the transfer gate; far too many people – in a post-pandemic world.

If the rapid and astounding cancellation of last year’s tournament signaled the country what the coronavirus was about to do, then this year’s tournaments could be the turning point of a final page.

Despite all their flaws and legitimate questions as to whether they should have been played, the men’s tournament – in which all 68 teams descended to Indianapolis for what would be a 23-day stay for the finalists – and the women’s tournament in Texas has come at a time of transition.

Coronavirus cases across the country have increased in the past two weeks – including in Marion County, Indiana, which includes Indianapolis, where cases have jumped 39% since the tournament began. A University of Alabama student died of complications from Covid-19 after watching his team play in the tournament.

But on Saturday alone, more than four million people were vaccinated across the country; By the start of the weekend, nearly a third of the American population had received at least one injection of the vaccine.

The Texas Rangers, not without criticism, hosted a baseball game in a nearly full stadium on Monday night – around the same time that Gonzaga and Baylor made inquiries in a nearly empty stadium. The Washington Nationals, who had all nine players who tested positive for the coronavirus or were found to be in close contact with those who had, were preparing to play their postponed season opener on Tuesday.

It’s easy to imagine that the doors will soon open to college sports.

It might not be in time for the University Baseball and Softball World Series or the Championship Subdivisional playoffs this spring. But the Big Ten Conference recently said it was abandoning its fan participation policy and relying on local health guidelines, leaving open the possibility of crowds at spring soccer games. Announcements have been made by some schools in the Southeastern Conference to have capacity crowds for football in the fall.

It’s hard to say what this new normal will look like.

The Big Michigan House, with its 107,601-seat capacity, will it feel like an empty nest due to some football fans’ lingering concerns about massive public gatherings or their realization that sitting in a chair in front of it? a big screen trumps the hassle of the game – daytime traffic?

The pandemic has left a hole in the budgets of many athletics departments, leaving some schools to cut back on the sport while preserving income and making urgent appeals to donors for more help.

One thing is certain: the attack on the business model of university sport will not end with the pandemic. In fact, the public health crisis only delayed the confrontation.

An account of the ability of athletes to capitalize on their fame is beckoning, with Congress and state legislatures keen to tip the scales towards the players. Imagine the opportunities Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs might have had after his moon winner against UCLA or the sponsors courting his childhood friend UConn star Paige Bueckers to sell to his 800,000 Instagram followers.

Questions about relaxing transfer rules and a review of gender equality between men’s and women’s sports that were forced by the visible differences between the two basketball tournaments in coronavirus tests, halls weight training and other arrangements are also on hand.

All of the issues have surfaced (or resurfaced) as the Supreme Court considers whether to whittle away or bring a hammer to the foundation upon which the college track industry is built – not having to pay players for their work.

These questions have encompassed basketball for much of the past three weeks and, as a by-product, have steered the constant presence of the virus a little more to the background than usual.

NCAA President Mark Emmert, from the moment he walked through Hinkle Fieldhouse on the first full day of the tournament, found himself discussing gender equity and athlete rights with reporters and the players themselves. even more than basketball or the pandemic.

“They have to be the criteria by which we judge gender equity,” Emmert said of the tournaments on Thursday. “If we fail at this level, we fail in all areas.”

So maybe the end of this basketball season was appropriate. Gonzaga’s otherwise perfect season was left with a flaw to end the men’s tournament, and no team has endured more than the Stanford women, who spent nine weeks away from campus on their way to what their coach , Tara VanDerveer, called “the Covid Championship”. because returning would have meant spending two weeks in quarantine.

At the start of this journey, VanDerveer told me, “We are road warriors, but we cannot be road, road, road warriors. We are not nomads. She also said something else that stuck – that neither she nor her team were suspended to win a much sought-after title.

The best teams, she says, often have a different motivation – the season is so much fun, they don’t want it to end.

This year, even for the champions, that may not have been the case.

Alan blinder and Gillian R. Brassil contribution to reports.

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