The unthinkable has happened.
Thursday, when the NCAA announced that the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments would be cancelled due to COVID-19, the college basketball world responded with shock, frustration, anger and just about everything in between.
Sports fans across the country — myself included — will have to come to grips with the fact that one of our greatest annual traditions is no more. Losing March Madness won’t be easy for anyone.
But none of us can relate to what the players, especially seniors, are feeling.
For many of them, the tournament was going to be the end of their basketball careers — a grand finale of sorts. Just 0.9 percent of women’s and 1.1 percent of men’s basketball players make the leap from college to the professional level. For the other 99 percent, the NCAA Tournament is the biggest sporting event they’ll ever have the chance to play in. To have that stolen from them is downright criminal.
To be clear, it was absolutely necessary to cancel the tournament. The safety of the players and coaches must come first, and the coronavirus has reached a point where half-baked efforts to contain it won’t work. The NCAA acted in the best interests of its athletes in this one case.
Now, it must do it again.
Those seniors who have been robbed of the opportunity of a lifetime deserve another shot. They deserve an extra year of eligibility.
Yes, this would be unprecedented. It’s a lot to ask the NCAA — an organization that doesn’t consider being close to a sick family member as a valid reason for immediate transfer eligibility — to just give an extra year to hundreds of athletes.
But everything about this is unprecedented. March Madness has never been cancelled. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. Now is not the time to worry about what’s been done before. It’s time to do the right thing for these athletes.
The specifics would admittedly be complicated. With new players coming in, teams across the country would exceed the current scholarship limit of 13. The NCAA could expand that for one season, but that brings up questions of equity. Would it be fair to teams that had few or no seniors this year? A potential solution could be a mandatory redshirt rule to keep rosters at the same size, but the specifics of that itself would have to be ironed out.
For Michigan, there are two seniors on both the women’s and men’s teams. The women’s team would certainly benefit from having forward Kayla Robbins back after she missed most of Big Ten play with a torn ACL, and there’s no doubt she’d be thrilled to return to her teammates for another year. We know her co-captain — senior guard Akienreh Johnson — wants to come back, as the team has already petitioned for another year of eligibility for her.
And on the men’s side, though there’s no guarantee guard Zavier Simpson and center Jon Teske would choose to come back for another season, they deserve the right to make that decision for themselves. That’s the case for a number of players across the country — Cassius Winston isn’t returning to Michigan State, and Sabrina Ionescu isn’t going back to Oregon.
But I can’t speak for what players across the country would want or what’s best for them.
So just ask their coaches.
“Seniors, if they want, should have another year,” Oklahoma State men’s basketball coach Mike Boynton told Jeff Goodman of Stadium. “Special permission on scholarship numbers for an unprecedented circumstance. Next year only.”
Mid-major schools have it worse. While making the tournament is an expectation for the Dukes and Kansases of the world, it’s life-changing for schools like East Tennessee State, whose men’s team had just punched its ticket after winning the Southern Conference Tournament.
“I’m heartbroken for everyone associated with our program, especially our five seniors,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes told Goodman. “These young men have dedicated their lives to have the opportunity to represent ETSU in the NCAA Tournament, and it’s been taken away from them at no fault of their own.
“While I wholeheartedly support this decision, I will make it my mission to fight for another year of eligibility for our five seniors so they have the opportunity to once again turn their dreams into reality.”
It’s heartbreaking across the board. After years of dedication, athletes came within inches of their dreams, only to have it snatched away at the last minute. Yes, COVID-19 is bigger than sports. It’s bigger than all of us.
But that doesn’t make its smaller-level impacts any less important. The NCAA has a unique opportunity to erase just a little bit of the damage it’s done to college athletes.
And I can’t see any reason why it shouldn’t.
Brendan Roose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BrendanRoose.