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Save the athletes: Cancel college basketball games, but keep March Madness | COMMENTARY

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 5: In this handout photo provided by Boston University, Sukhmail Mathon #41 of Boston University and Matt Faw #15 of Holy Cross bump fists during a game with both teams wearing masks on January 5, 2021 at Case Gym in Boston, Massachusetts. Holy Cross won 68-66.
BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 5: In this handout photo provided by Boston University, Sukhmail Mathon #41 of Boston University and Matt Faw #15 of Holy Cross bump fists during a game with both teams wearing masks on January 5, 2021 at Case Gym in Boston, Massachusetts. Holy Cross won 68-66. (Handout / BU Athletics via Getty Images)

Producers of the Grammy Awards recently announced they were postponing the ceremony — scheduled for later this month — to March 14. “Nothing is more important than the health and safety of those in our music community,” the producers stated, noting the rising number of coronavirus cases in the Los Angeles area.

As fate would have it, March 14 is also Selection Sunday for March Madness, the NCAA’s national basketball tournament. But it turns out that there’s something more important than the health and safety of college athletes: the almighty dollar.

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That’s the only way to explain the decision to keep playing college basketball. The tournament generates over $800 million each year, half of which is distributed to member conferences and schools. At a moment of maximal financial stress for our universities, it’s probably asking too much of them to leave so much money on the table.

So, I’ve got a better idea: Let’s cancel the remaining games, and then hold March Madness anyway.

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Crazy, you say? Not as crazy as playing right now. According to the NCAA, about one in four Division I men’s and women’s games have already been canceled or postponed. At the University of Houston, all 15 players on the men’s team received positive tests back in December. But they rebounded to an 8-1 record and a No. 11 national ranking, as if nothing happened.

But we don’t really know what happened, which is the whole point. According to medical authorities, 15% of NCAA athletes recovering from coronavirus have experienced myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Do we really want to put more young people at risk for that?

Nor should we take any comfort from the college football season, which blessedly came to a close with Monday’s title game. According to a New York Times analysis last month, over 6,600 players, coaches and athletic staff members at schools in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision have tested positive for coronavirus.

Basketball is an even scarier proposition. It’s played indoors, of course, and players aren’t protected by helmets or masks. (Last week’s game between Holy Cross and Boston University — where both teams wore masks — was a welcome exception.) And there are many more games per season, which means more travel as well. How can we advise our general population to avoid unnecessary travel, then let thousands of college students crisscross the country? All to play hoops? Really?

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So let’s call off the season and reconvene in Indianapolis in March, provided that viral loads have lessened enough by then to make it safe. If not, we can always delay it for a month or two. We’ll still get to see the tournament, and — most of all — the NCAA will still get paid.

Determining which teams get to go will be controversial, of course, but that will also add excitement to the event. We could cede the entire decision to the NCAA selection committees, which historically choose the “at-large” teams after conference winners secure “automatic” bids. Or we could let each conference select its own representatives, perhaps by a vote of coaches or even by lottery.

Yes, that would be weird. But I know I’d watch, and I bet you would as well. March Madness can continue, even if it’s in April or May. The real madness is playing college basketball now.

Jonathan Zimmerman (jlzimm@aol.com) teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author (with cartoonist Signe Wilkinson) of “Free Speech, And Why You Should Give a Damn,” which will be published in April by City of Light Press.

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