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No bracket busters. No watch parties or pregaming. No upsets or underdogs; no storming the court. Alumni fan clubs, student cheering sections and campus bars will be quiet for the next three weeks and perhaps even the remainder of the spring semester as U.S. colleges move into unseen territory -- the absence of intercollegiate athletics.
The coronavirus pandemic that has upended the daily lives and routines of college students around the world has also wiped out one of the most unifying features of campus and community life in the United States. The recent decision by the National Collegiate Athletic Association to cancel all remaining championship competitions for the winter and spring seasons to help reduce the spread of coronavirus and promote social distancing has only compounded the disappointment students are feeling about the unprecedented changes taking place on their campuses. They describe the cancellations in emotional terms, using words such as "tragic" and "traumatic."
Student athletes and graduating seniors for whom this was the last opportunity for an irreplaceable college experience are dealing with multiple levels of grief, said Susan Krauss Whitborne, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies athletes and sports fandom. On top of suddenly being forced to take classes online or move away from campus, the cancellations of sporting events will have a psychological impact on students, especially those who were involved in winter or spring sports, marching band or cheerleading, Krauss Whitborne said.
“Some of them will never put on a uniform or pick up a ball ever again, and their whole experience has changed,” Krauss Whitborne said. “The professional teams want to have their games and play their championships as well, but it doesn’t have that ‘once in a lifetime’ feel.”
She said students had no time to prepare for decisions by college administrators reacting to a fast-changing and escalating public health crisis, and that made things feel worse. Some students got the news while they were away on spring break; some were in the middle of actual games or track meets, while others found out as they were packing to leave their campuses in the wake of mass closures by institutions that are moving instruction online and telling students to go home or not return to their campuses after spring break.
Allison Wahrman, a senior who competes in hammer throws for the University of Iowa's track and field team, found it all "heartbreaking." She said there was no closure on her college athletic career -- no senior night, no final meet. She believes she could have competed professionally with one last season of experience.
“I’m in shock right now. It hasn’t really processed that I already could’ve competed in my last meet,” Wahrman said. “I’ve been an athlete my whole life, so for it to come to an end like this, it doesn’t make sense to me. I feel like there’s something that needs to be done.”
The sense of loss is especially palpable for students who built and nurtured friendships through college sports.
Elizabeth Mason, a junior at Florida State University who plays softball, said the seniors on her team have become her "best friends and sisters."
"I am heartbroken for the seniors across the nation who have had their last year taken from them," Mason said. "I know we are all hurting for what may be the end of their careers."
Wahrman started a petition calling for the NCAA to extend senior athletes’ eligibility to play, which had received more than 164,000 signatures by March 13. The same day, all three of the NCAA's divisions agreed to look at rule changes that would allow extensions for spring sports players. The decision about extensions for winter sports athletes, such as those who play basketball or hockey, is less certain.
The Division I men’s basketball national championship, known as the March Madness tournament, will not be played for the first time since its inauguration in 1939, ESPN reported, which presents a different kind of loss.
The impact of an estimated nearly $800 million in revenue that the NCAA would receive from television networks to broadcast the tournament is an unknown, though COO Donald Remy has said the association’s reserves and business interruption insurance would partially cover monetary damages. More than 100 million people tuned in to the NCAA’s livestream of the tournament in 2019, television viewers increased by more than 10 percent last year and more than 72,000 people attended both the national semifinals and championship games, according to the NCAA’s 2019 viewership.
Americans' love for and obsession with March Madness is an “amazing phenomenon” that cannot be explained in other parts of the world, said John Shrader, a sports media and communications professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. His courses focus on the important community bonds created by the mutual love of sports at a time when people are less likely to attend church or be involved at their local community center, he said.
“Sports is where we gather, no matter a person’s identity, race -- all walks of life,” Shrader said. “We enjoy the community and camaraderie of sports.”
The cancellation of the tournament will also have an adverse economic impact on the 14 cities that were meant to host competitions, said Tom McMillen, president and CEO of the LEAD1 Association, an organization that represents 130 college athletic directors and programs.
“There’s a lot of collateral damage here,” he said. “You think about the vendors, concessionaires, hotels, restaurants in all these cities; that’s irreplaceable. This is traumatic. I hope that it wanes in the next three months, or otherwise we’re getting into the football season. And that’s the elephant in the room.”
The Alumni Association of the University of Kentucky canceled a pregame event for the men’s basketball team’s appearance in the Southeastern Conference tournament, said Jill Smith, the associate executive director of the alumni association.
She said there’s always a “deep sense of pride and competition” during March Madness, and people will drive for hours to be with other Kentucky fans and alumni and share nostalgic stories about national championship wins. Because there are no professional sports teams in Kentucky, the university's teams fill an important role, Smith said.
“It’s really one of the best, if not the best, sporting event in our country. It’s three weeks of unpredictability, excitement. It brings a lot of people together, whether it’s in person, watching, what have you,” Smith said. “We have people that follow us who have not even stepped on campus.”
The general reaction among alumni has been “understanding” and “positive,” Smith said. Some attendees asked that refunds for the event go to the alumni club in Nashville, Tenn., to contribute to a merit-based scholarship fund for Nashville high school students to attend Kentucky.
“You see kind acts of humanity at times like these,” Smith said. “Everybody is cheering for humanity to be safe.”
McMillen compared the impact of the pandemic to the time during World War II when football and basketball games were canceled because there weren’t enough men to fill team rosters. He said his most vivid memory as a basketball player for the University of Maryland in the 1970s was coming back to the campus after winning the National Invitation Tournament and seeing thousands of fans there to greet him and other team members. It will be difficult for the athletes who never again get the chance to experience that feeling, but recent developments related to the pandemic are another part of American history, he said.
Despite the distance created in communities and the loss of shared activities and entertainment due to public health authorities' recommendations that people not congregate in groups, students, team athletes and college sports fans alike will find ways to connect with one another, Krauss Whitborne said.
“The lack of physical togetherness will affect that sense of community, but outside hardships unite people,” Krauss Whitborne said. “Once they’re able to cope with the grief in general that they’re going through, they find ways to come together and find new ways for fandom.”