Why the Ivy League was first to shut down because of coronavirus as others plowed ahead

Three days before what would have been her program’s first postseason appearance, the coach of the Columbia women’s basketball team knocked on her athletic director’s office door.

Megan Griffith’s players were eager to start practice. Griffith just needed to know if the Lions still had a game to prepare for anymore.

It was the morning of March 10, 2020, and COVID-19 had begun to incite widespread panic across America. The looming threat of the virus crashed financial markets, scuttled travel plans and caused shoppers to strip store shelves bare.

While the rest of American professional and college sports were still plowing ahead like nothing was wrong, Ivy League administrators had consulted with public health officials for weeks and favored a more cautious approach. The league’s options included limiting the number of spectators at its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, playing without any fans or canceling both events altogether.

Griffith believed a spectator-free Ivy League tournament was the likely outcome until she saw the shaken expression on athletic director Peter Pilling’s face after she knocked on his door. That’s when Griffith realized that Columbia’s season was over, that its NCAA tournament hopes were dead, that her preparation for a semifinal matchup with Princeton would go to waste.

The cancellation of the Ivy League basketball tournaments was especially heartbreaking for Griffith’s program, which was 17-10 and in the midst of a breakthrough season. Only one other time since joining the Ivy League in 1986 had Columbia won more games than it lost or finished in the upper half of the conference standings.

“After Peter came down to practice and delivered the news to our team, the main person I wanted to address was our lone senior,” Griffith said. “I started speaking and tears started streaming down everyone’s faces. Everyone wanted the opportunity to do something special and historic, and for it to be ripped from us like that, it just seemed unfair at the time.”

At first, Ivy League basketball players and coaches were outraged by the order to halt play when their peers in other conferences were still competing. Within 48 hours, a decision initially derided as overcautious became the norm across major college and pro sports.

This is the story of why the Ivy League was first to recognize the danger posed by COVID-19 — and last to deem conditions safe enough for sports to return.

2020 THE IVY LEAGUE BASKETBALL TOURNAMENTS logo, graphic element on black
The 2020 Ivy League basketball tournaments were scheduled to take place in Boston, beginning on March 13. It never happened.

'I need to pay attention to this'

America’s splashiest headlines in early 2020 highlighted the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the first impeachment trial of Donald Trump and the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant. Buried deeper in the news cycle were reports of a mysterious virus that originated in Wuhan, China, and forced a city of 11 million people to endure an unprecedented lockdown.

While Ivy League executive director Robin Harris became aware of COVID-19 by early January, at that time it seemed like a distant threat. That began to change a few weeks later when Harris flew into Los Angeles for an NCAA convention around the same time as a Wuhan resident flying through the airport had experienced symptoms and tested positive for the virus.

“This is going to be real,” Harris remembers thinking. “I need to pay attention to this.”

In February, before the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. hit triple digits, the Ivy League had already begun developing policies in case the situation became urgent. Administrators met to discuss issues that then were unfamiliar but have since become routine — what to do if a player contracted the virus or if a team had to quarantine and couldn’t compete.

As the number of U.S. positive tests began to double every couple days during the first week of March, the Ivy League’s eight university presidents became increasingly involved. They leaned on their access to some of the nation’s finest epidemiologists and infectious disease experts to assess if the Ivy League could safely hold its basketball tournaments and move ahead with spring sports.

By the second week in March, it became a race against time.

Initially, Harris believed the men’s and women’s tournaments could be held without fans. Then, as campuses began regulating gathering sizes, Harris began exploring holding the men’s and women’s tournaments at different sites. Finally, as the spread of the virus became more worrisome and rules prohibiting large indoor gatherings grew stricter, the Ivy league presidents unanimously concluded on the morning of March 10, 2020, that cancelling both tournaments was the most prudent option.

“It really came down to the group size restrictions,” Harris told Yahoo Sports. “Even if we had separated the men’s and women’s tournaments, we were still exceeding the group gathering numbers that were going to be allowed on any Ivy League campus. There were too many players, coaches and staff that were absolutely necessary to run the event.”

Why did the Ivy League reach this decision the same day as other conferences across college announced their intent to play on? It’s because, for better or worse, the league clings to a core principle from a bygone era: That athletes shouldn’t be treated any differently than students who do not play sports.

In an effort to protect the health of its students and the communities surrounding its campuses, the Ivy League applied campus policies to athletics the same as the rest of the student body. Despite their years of hard work or the revenue they generate, basketball players received no special consideration.

Ivy League faces backlash

Sports may have shut down across America two days after the Ivy League’s announcement, but for a brief period, the conference was on an island.

As a result, the Ivy League became a piñata for critics who argued the tournament cancellations were excessive or premature.

Men’s and women’s basketball players at the University of Pennsylvania started a petition to reinstate the Ivy League tournaments the afternoon they were cancelled. The online petition blasted the “hypocrisy of our Ivy League presidents” and deemed their decision “baffling and alarming.”

Among the petition’s complaints was that Ivy League teams in other sports at that time were still traveling to tournaments across the country. The petition also noted that the Ivy League was then the only one of college basketball’s 30-plus Division I conferences to cancel its postseason tournament.

“We feel the decision to cancel the tournament was made without enough serious consideration for the student athletes and the investments that have been made up to this point in our season,” the petition read. “This is the pinnacle of what we have worked for since August.”

More than 15,000 people declared their support for the petition. Others, like former Harvard guard Bryce Aiken, expressed outrage via social media.

Oddly, the Ivy League at that time still intended to send teams to the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments. As a result, the cancellation of the Ivy League tournaments was cause for muted celebration for the Yale men and Princeton women. They both claimed automatic bids to the NCAA tournament via their regular season league titles instead of having to win two games in two days to get there.

“I certainly felt for the other kids and other programs, but it was all good for us,” Yale men’s coach James Jones told Yahoo Sports. “It wasn’t like we were jumping around, but we clapped and high-fived a little bit because we were going to the NCAA tournament.”

By and large, however, Ivy League players and coaches were furious — and that was tough for Harris to take. She stood by the Ivy League’s decision yet agonized over its ramifications.

“Our student-athletes had worked so hard all year for this culminating event, and we were ripping it out from under them,” Harris said. “Even though we knew it was the right decision, it was very painful.”

One regret that Harris has is not holding a conference call with Ivy League basketball coaches after their athletic directors communicated the news. She says she could have addressed the inconsistency of cancelling the Ivy League basketball tournaments while spring sports continued to compete.

“There was a hope that we could still have a spring, but as our campuses started deciding to send students home for the semester, it quickly became clear within 24 hours that we weren’t going to be able to have a spring season,” Harris said. “But in that gap, it was really hard. The basketball coaches and student-athletes felt singled out.”

NEW HAVEN, CT - MARCH 17: Yale Bulldogs players celebrate after defeating the Harvard Crimson and wining the Ivy League Championship on March 17, 2019, at John J. Lee Amphitheater in New Haven, CT. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Yale celebrates after defeating Harvard to win the 2019 Ivy League Championship. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Ivy League is still shut down

On the night of March 11, less than 36 hours removed from the Ivy League’s announcement that it had canceled its basketball tournaments, Harris came home from work exhausted.

She and her husband were eating dinner together on the couch in front of the TV when news of Rudy Gobert’s positive test first broke.

Over the next 24 hours, the Ivy League went from outlier to trailblazer. The NBA shut down that night. Conferences across America called off their tournaments one after another the following morning. That afternoon, the NCAA cancelled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments too.

“Seeing all the dominoes falling, it reinforced what I already knew,” Harris said. “Our presidents had first-class information about the virus, and they were right.”

Criticism of the Ivy League’s decision quickly faded as the rest of the sports calendar went dark. Griffith said the Gobert news and the subsequent NBA shutdown reinforced the severity of the situation to herself and her Columbia players.

“You knew it was real,” Griffith said. “You knew it wasn’t just us being overly protective or conservative. Something really bad was about to happen and we needed to do everything we could to keep people safe and healthy and mitigate risk.”

While professional and major-college sports have since returned with social distancing and crowd size limits, the Ivy League has not. Presidents of the Ivy League’s eight universities announced last July that sports would remain on hiatus until January 1 and then in November extended the stoppage until March 1. Last month, the presidents cancelled spring sports a second time, though they left open the possibility teams could play if campuses reopen and public health conditions improve.

The Ivy League’s most recent decisions have come despite the pleas of athletes frustrated by the presidents’ cautiousness. They see other conferences playing through stoppages and outbreaks and wonder why the Ivy League can’t do the same.

“We understand how challenging this year has been for our student-athletes and coaches who are watching others compete,” Harris said. “But as valued as athletics are on our campuses, our presidents are committed to our communities as a whole.”

Earlier this year, billionaire Yale lacrosse alumnus Joe Tsai offered to pay for the creation of a bubble to allow the Ivy League’s men’s and women’s lacrosse teams to hold a season. The Ivy League rejected that proposal last month and thus far has stood its ground amid pressure from other influential alumni.

In February, the Ivy League did decide to allow current seniors an extra year of athletic eligibility, a reversal of a longstanding policy barring graduate students from competition. Alas, that came too late for many Ivy League seniors, who were either already taking a semester off to preserve their eligibility or had already made other plans for next year.

With no games of their own to worry about, Ivy League basketball coaches have tried to make the best of a bad situation by observing other teams play and vulturing sets they like. Jones joked that his vote in the weekly Coaches Poll is more well-informed than ever before.

“I have never devoted as much time to it as I do this year,” he said.

In fall 2019, Griffith stuffed a few days worth of clothes into a travel bag and brought it to Columbia’s first team meeting of the season. The purpose was to show her players she had her bags packed for the Ivy League tournament, that she had faith they could finish in the top four in the conference for the second time in program history.

Eighteen months later, that bag still sits unused in Griffith’s office.

“To see that we were ahead of the curve last March, it was a reminder that we have to trust our presidents,” Griffith said. “Obviously now other teams are playing and we’re not, but we still have to trust that the decisions they’re making are best for the people at our universities and the surrounding communities.”

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