INDIANAPOLIS – Sometime on Friday the college kids playing for free will be delivering an amazing basketball game that will grab the nation’s attention, and many of us will be signing up on Twitter to put in lots of exclamation marks about how awesome it is that the NCAA tournament is back after more than 700 days.
Here in Indianapolis, where the NCAA is trying to end this tournament in the midst of a pandemic, NCAA President Mark Emmert and Company will be exhaling because – for a moment, at least – it will change the subject of disaster this week and the organization’s reputation .
In the one-week run-up to the tournament, three dominant storylines emerged:
♦ Six referees were sent home because they went to dinner and one of them tested positive for COVID-19, a protocol breach that was partly due to the NCAA not performing proper check-in procedures.
♦ Several players in the men’s tournament have started a social media movement using the hashtag #NotNCAAPropertyand criticized the NCAA for failing to introduce new rules that would allow college athletes to capitalize on their name, image, and likeness.
♦ Then on Thursday, Images popped up from the women’s tournament bubble in San Antonio they show a weight room – if you can call it that – which was actually nothing more than a frame of light dumbbells. When compared to the extensive and nifty weight room set up for the men, it looked like a marked inequality that led NCAA vice president of women’s basketball Lynn Holzman to blame a lack of space in a statement that acknowledged the problem, but didn’t exactly was a mea culpa.
That being said, things are going great!
To be fair, it’s a daunting undertaking what the NCAA is trying to do this month. The logistics of bringing 68 men’s teams in Indianapolis and 64 women’s teams in San Antonio together in a COVID-safe environment is incomprehensible to most people. There will be some transportation problems, some meals that might get cold, some hotel rooms that won’t be ready on time. It happens.
However, the NCAA’s ability to perfectly execute every detail of this event is not the problem. It’s the lack of common sense.
The NCAA is really good at stuffing tokens like John Thompson’s autobiography in the pouch bags waiting for players in their rooms. It’s really bad to do the essential things that make it clear that you consider the players an essential part of their money machine.
And as always, this creates a completely unnecessary problem that blows us up, and we wonder why this organization even exists when its main function these days – hosting championship tournaments – is so half-hearted.
By the way, this is not an exaggeration.
If COVID-19 hadn’t canceled the 2020 tournament, it would be the fourth since the FBI exposed massive corruption in college basketball. So far, not a single high-profile coach or school involved in the scandal has been punished, which means the NCAA has failed to meet its responsibility for justice.
After a decade of bringing the can to its knees over the inevitable pursuit of naming, image, and likeness rights, the NCAA is now tossed around by state lawmakers and the US Congress and can address the biggest existential issue of this Generation does not rule by itself.
Meanwhile, Emmert has made the job of NCAA president all but a highly-paid irrelevance, as his ten-year tenure did little to give the commissioners of the five richest football conferences even more control over the future of college sports.
At this point in time, the NCAA consists primarily of championship venues. And they start their marquee events this weekend and even then look subpar.
A boxing meal that doesn’t look particularly appetizing is not the end of the world, and the players taking part in the tournament will leave here grateful for the opportunity to be part of an event they have been watching their entire lives.
The problem is the inability to admit that without the players there would be no billions in an NCAA tournament. It is easier for this fact to go unnoticed in a normal year. But when this isn’t really a fun experience, when the athletes are unable to get around the city as they please, or when they leave their hotel floor for most of the day, it seems less like a deodorant and a puzzle in her room to be a gift and more like an insult.
And of course, they will say it out loud because they know more than ever that it is wrong to deny the right to benefit from their likeness. They know it is wrong for the NCAA not to provide the right exercise equipment.
By building these bubbles for the next three weeks, the NCAA has proven that it is possible to play a tournament in a pandemic. But it also gives everyone involved more reason to look beneath the surface, and they didn’t necessarily like what they found.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken on Twitter @ DanWolken.