Tell Me When

I shouldn't write this. That's really the overriding thought I have as I nonetheless write this piece—I should not be doing this. Thing is, I'm not a doctor, I'm not an epidemiologist, I'm otherwise some guru in public health that qualifies me to weigh in here. So I'm going to stay as far away from areas where it might actually require some expertise.

Even still, I recognize that this post will come off as anti-science, corporatist, or just plain ignorant. I suppose that's OK, it wouldn't be the worst thing anyone has ever thought about me. But I hope that most readers can appreciate that's not the angle I'm taking.

The NCAA Tournament, if it moves forward, is going to be weird. Conference tournaments already are weird and, frankly, many of them may not finish.

Check that. As I write this, the Big Ten Tournament has been canceled. I think it's safe to say that the NCAA Tournament seems like a longshot now. Of course, this is all in response to the coronavirus, COVID-19, Wuhan flu, or whatever you want to call it. The virus has spread very quickly, with about 130,000 cases worldwide (about 80,000 of those in China, where the virus originated). If you're 59 and under, the mortality rate is under 2 percent. Children seem to be immune. The mortality rate for those 80 and older, however, could be as high as 20 percent. It's more serious than the flu, for sure, and it would be wise to take precautions. Limiting international travel seems logical. Lots of hand washing. Encouraging working from home. Eliminating large crowds. OK, yep, sure.

But now the powers that be are canceling basketball games involving 18-22 year olds in largely empty gyms. The media would have been galaxies away from them, in microbial terms. The teams would have been interacting largely with each other and their coaching staffs. No one else on the buses. Chartered flights away from the public. Hotel floors with enforced curfews.

Isn't this the kind of "social distancing" that's been preached for the past few weeks? At this point, teams like Minnesota are likely done. Instead of hanging with the same 15 people over the next 2-3 weeks, the players and coaches are released into the wild. Maybe they'll obediently follow CDC recommendations and limit their exposure to the outside world. But I have my doubts—my 20 year old self assuredly would not have.


There's a strategy for facing potential harms on a large scale known as the "precautionary principle." It emphasizes caution in approaching new technologies, for instance. It appears to be winning the ideological day in slowing the spread of coronavirus. There's a graphic that's been reproduced about 3 million times that refers, broadly, to "flattening the curve." The idea is that the fewer people there are that get sick, the fewer there are that get disastrously sick, and thus our healthcare system has the capacity to treat all of the severe cases. However, if we exceed our limits, healthcare providers are suddenly rationing life-saving care on a necessarily cruel basis.

The theory is sound. But it's important to realize that all of these numbers you keep seeing on these "flatten the curve" infographics...they're all made-up. Are we smashing down a curve that never had a chance at incapacitating our health care system? Or are we pounding plastic hammers to slow down a massive, upwardly-moving meteor?

We don't know.


It's here where knowledge reveals itself as the ultimate ace in the hole. When a football team scores a touchdown to cut the deficit to 9, it should go for 2. NFL teams never do this, because a failure means that instead of harboring hope that this is a one-score game (down 8 after the extra point), it's now a two-score game (down 9). But the odds of converting a two-point attempt do not change based on the time remaining in the game. If you're not going to convert, better to find out now that you need two scores. The offensive and playclock strategy is of course wildly different in those two scenarios, and you can't get back the time you wasted when you fail to score the two points on the second touchdown.

What you gain with that early failed two-point conversion is knowledge. In every battle, match, negotiation—every adversarial setting, knowledge is king. And right now, we don't have nearly enough. We don't know how many people in the country are infected. We don't know how long before a vaccine is developed. We don't know, of course, who has it. And we won't know those things until they've happened and that's long after we make decisions about how much basketball is safe. We don't gain any extra knowledge by making rash decisions. No matter how much the claim is that steps are being taken in "an abundance of caution," they are nonetheless steps taken in the dark.


The precautionary principle is centered on uncertainty, but where there's this much uncertainty, it's paralyzing. Where there's a clear payoff for a certain action or inaction, you can justify the application of the principle because even if there is an unintended consequence, at least there's a positive pushing back against that downside.

But canceling postseason games that were going to be played in empty arenas? I'm lost—where's the upside? And to those that argue that canceling games is the right action, tell me why. Moreover, tell me when it's enough. It seems bonkers to cancel glorified pickup games but allow millions of strangers to ride crowded subways and buses every day. Most K-12 schools are still open. Movie theaters, bowling alleys, restaurants—doors are open (with very few exceptions). The coronavirus is out there, and no less accessible now that basketball is canceled.

That goes for the student-athletes, too. The refrain that's getting a lot of airtime is "welfare of the student athletes." And sure, who's going to argue against that?

However, I would like an explanation as to why, precisely, canceling games was in the interest in the welfare of the student athletes. Are the student athletes going directly to quarantine? Is there any reason to believe they will interact with fewer people than the sum total of the team and staff over the next couple of weeks? Kevin Warren talked about "doing the right thing" in justifying the decision to cancel the Big Ten Tournament, a pithy phrase that assumes a moral high ground where no foundation has been laid.

Warren did acknowledge that the fear of "something going awry here" (presumably, that a player or coach contracts the virus) helped drive his decision. I do not agree with that premise, however. If a player or coach contracts the virus at home, on campus, or in someplace they would not otherwise have been but for the cancelation...well, the precautionary principle itself is full of unintended consequences. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of intended consequences. A lot of businesses rely on things like NCAA Tournament games, even in a trickle-down way (say, advertisers looking for eyeballs during commercials).

There's also been some suggestion that canceling things gets people to "take this seriously." No doubt that it does but this...this is not a good thing.

The opposite of indifference is panic. Neither is a good outcome, and it's precisely why we shouldn't be so quick to conclude that overreaction is a perfectly OK outcome. When Very Serious People declare it's just too damned dangerous for kids to play basketball in an empty gym, it's a signal to everyone else that this is several orders of magnitude worse than could be imagined. So now we have strangers congregating in Costcos and Wal-Marts all over the country, picking items up and putting them down. Grabbing shopping carts from the last customer. Handling money.

Overreact enough, and you end up with a panic. Canceling basketball, is an overreaction.

Everybody panic.