NEW YORK – Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman on the tough decisions made today as the BIG EAST cancelled their 2020 men’s basketball and all other spring sporting events.:
VAL ACKERMAN: I’m going to speak from the heart a little bit here. This has been the most extraordinary stretch of days I’ve ever had or ever seen in my 30-plus years of working in the sports business. The developments seem to be changing by the hour. As I mentioned yesterday, for those of you in the conference — there were — few of the people running sports leagues or sports organizations who are qualified medical professionals.
So we’re relying on the judgments of doctors and experts. The conferences are looking to each other in many ways to try to figure out what to do. We take guidance from the NCAA. I can tell you that as part of our scheduled meeting this morning with the presidents and the athletics directors, we had on the call video conferencing in from Indianapolis senior executives from the NCAA.
So as recently as 10:00 this morning, as I’m running this meeting, we had no idea that these developments were going to transpire with conference tournaments.
We all reacted yesterday, of course, to the NCAA’s news, based on the opinion of its medical experts, that it was going to adopt a restricted attendance policy for the NCAA Tournament. They were not talking at that point about canceling the NCAA Tournament and none of the conferences — I can tell you that last evening I was on the phone with the commissioners of other major basketball conferences, who I learned were going to adopt a restricted attendance policy as a cautionary measure, et cetera. So we went into our meeting today and that’s really where everybody was.
Our meeting broke up a little bit before noon, and that was when we heard literally for the first time that other conferences were beginning to make this move. I was able to connect with one of the other conference commissioners, just because I wanted to understand their thinking, and he said that for his conference it was largely driven by directives that he was getting from the municipality in which their conference tournament is being played.
So I then reached out to a contact that I had established over the last week with the City of New York, in the Office of Emergency Management — this is now afternoon -and learned that New York City is, in fact, very shortly going to be bringing forward directives related to large gatherings here in New York.
So this had not yet hit. I can’t give you any more details than that, but I can tell you that an hour ago — plus ago, I was learning for the first time that the city — and we’ve been dealing with them for days — and they have been telling us they’re not recommending cancellations or any adjustments to large gatherings. It now appears that the city is prepared to act in the same way that some of the other major urban markets are acting.
So once we heard this news, play had started here at the Big East, we know. We then had to mobilize to get our presidents and our athletics directors reassembled. And so we did that in a conference call that was held about half an hour ago because I need to act, like all commissioners have to act through the authorization of their boards, and so our board quickly agreed.
When we alerted them to what was happening with other conferences, including the major basketball conferences, the Atlantic 10, we learned, is also making a move with respect to their tournament in Brooklyn, and importantly because of guidance that we were — just today, the first time — getting from the City of New York, it would be prudent to cancel the remainder of our men’s basketball tournament.
So now you know the news that we decided, out of an abundance of caution, even though everyone’s already gathered here, that it would make sense to not have our [inaudible] court after halftime.
So we have, here in the 2020 Big East Tournament, we have two completed games. We have half a game. And that’s all we’re going to have in 2020. I’ve got to tell you, it breaks my heart. This is the greatest college basketball tournament ever. But we respect the decision of authorities. We’re very mindful about what’s happening nationally. We do not want to be imprudent as it relates to the safety of our participants and our fans.
And it’s terrifying, frankly, what’s evolving here as the science and the assessments of the science are progressing. And I don’t think any of us know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
And, again, just to reinforce this, we had NCAA staff, who we’ve been looking to for guidance on a video conference with our presidents a few hours ago, and they did not let on that even they knew that some of these moves were being made by these other conferences.
So that’s kind of how the last 24 hours have gone. I want to just extend my thanks to all of you for supporting us here at the tournament. Sorry to put you through any trouble.
I want to thank, again, I know Joel Fisher from the Garden is here. And I can’t tell you, we were up all night planning out the limited attendance policy that we had going into today. It’s not easy to turn on a dime and tell all 20,000 people or 19,000 people they can’t come to the Big East Tournament, but we had to do it.
And I want to thank Joel and his amazing staff for turning with us as we were trying to put all this together. And, I mean, you all can second-guess our decision to play that first half. That’s your prerogative. But I can assure you we were doing the best we could with the information we had. And when we had to make the decision — and as soon as we got the information, particularly from the city, we didn’t hesitate to do what we had to do.
So with that, that’s kind of — that’s where we are — and I can’t opine on where the NCAA will go. I think, I’ll just add this because we were on the line with their folks this morning, they’re just monitoring this by the hour themselves. So as it relates to the NCAA Tournament, spring championships, et cetera, I just predict that we haven’t seen the end of this. It’s going to be a fast-moving set of circumstances. And we’ll be doing our best to keep up and to do what we have to do as a conference to adjust accordingly.
THE MODERATOR: Questions.
Q. If the Atlantic 10 can pull the plug literally two minutes before the tip off, why wasn’t it done here? And if it is because the decision hadn’t been made until during the half, then why wasn’t the game stopped when you made the decision?
VAL ACKERMAN: It was our view that we didn’t feel like we needed a dramatic, pull-the-players-off-the-court-in-the-middle-of-the-game gesture. Folks were here. We just literally didn’t think that another 15 or 20 minutes of game time was going to make that much of a difference.
That said, we didn’t think it was appropriate to send the athletes back out on to the floor during the halftime. So it was a judgment call that we made. It was just based on an assessment that we made. And, again, we didn’t — we were making calls — once we got this news about the other conferences, I felt it important to confer with the city, and that happened.
And, again, the city hasn’t made its announcement yet but it will. But we just thought under the circumstances the most appropriate, the least disruptive gesture for the student-athletes who are on the floor — because this is a trauma for them, too, I suspect. For us to sort of have Garden security march out on the floor pull them into locker rooms didn’t make sense to us.
But that said, we didn’t believe it made sense to pull them out after halftime either and send them out there. That was a decision we made, and we stand by the decision.
Q. When the news started to come down that other conference tournaments, especially ones played in NBA arenas had started.
VAL ACKERMAN: I felt it important to confer with the city and that happened. The city hasn’t made its announcement, it will. But the most important, least disruptive gesture of the athletes on the floor because this is a trauma for them, too, I suspect.
For us to have Garden security march out onto the floor and pull them into the locker room didn’t make sense to us. But that said, it didn’t make sense to pull them after halftime and send them back out there. That’s the decision we made and we stand by the decision.
Q. When the news stories came down that other conference tournaments, especially ones playing in NBA arenas had started to cancel their tournaments, was there consideration given to delaying the start of this until conference could be had before this even got underway?
VAL ACKERMAN: We didn’t entertain it. When we got this news, we were just not aware. We were just taken aback by the news. We just, we just we thought it was appropriate to start, to play until halftime and that’s what we decided to do. That was a decision we made.
Q. Sounds like that’s the entire gist of your statement, but how much harder is it to move things like this as the NCAA, which is so decentralized, unlike the NBA, which just has the Board of Governors meet, how has that been affecting things for you all week, really?
VAL ACKERMAN: Great question. The NCAA, their decision to go to a restricted attendance policy for the NCAA Tournament was made by their Board of Governors. Just a little primer here: The NCAA’s highest governing body is the governors; it’s made up of representatives from all three divisions. That was the body that made the decision relative to the NCAA Tournament that broke yesterday afternoon.
That decision was made in consultation with a COVID-19 medical panel that the Board of Governors had assembled representing pre-eminent doctors around the country. One of them was the former Surgeon General of the U.S., Vivek Murthy, who is also a member of the BOG.
I will tell you up until we actually had — we’ve had multiple conference calls in the last several days with our board. As recently as Monday, the NCAA’s medical director, on advice of the COVID advisory panel, was telling us that the NCAA was not planning any adjustments to their tournament at that time. So as recently as Monday, the guidance we were getting from the NCAA was not to cancel and not to go to a restricted attendance policy unless the local authorities are telling you to do that.
The answer is the NCAA is making a decision about its tournament because that’s where it has jurisdiction. But then each conference is left to itself to make decisions relative to the events that it, manages, and in the case of all the conferences that includes their basketball tournaments.
Q. Today you were finding things out in real time. You weren’t getting heads-up about it?
VAL ACKERMAN: We had no heads-up on this one.
Q. Last night, when the National Basketball Association deemed that it wasn’t even safe to play games with limited access or no fans or not open to the public, should this have happened then?
VAL ACKERMAN: Well, hindsight maybe is 20/20. I don’t know the answer to that. At the time we heard that directive, the NCAA was not making any determinations, other than restricted attendance. So we were following their lead. The City of New York at that time was still not making any determinations, and we’ve been consulting with them multiple times daily.
And so we felt that with the information that we had at the time — I think the NBA decision was in part driven by a positive Coronavirus test as well by an athlete, which we don’t have in the Big East. So they were operating on a slightly different fact set. And all I can tell you is based on the information that we had at the time last night we thought it was prudent to move forward with limited attendance, which we did. But we were prepared to adjust as needed, and that’s what we’ve done now, with these late-breaking.
Q. Were the athletes tested?
VAL ACKERMAN: No, none have exhibited any signs of sickness. This is generally what happens is they exhibit signs of sickness, they’re tested. If they’re exposed to individuals who have tested positive, then we’re just following the guidance of everyone in terms of the directives issued by the CDC and the New York City Department of Health. We’re not aware of any positive tests of any athletes in the Big East.
Q. Should the NCAA play its tournament, knowing what you know now about the risk to student-athletes? Should they hold their tournament?
VAL ACKERMAN: Well, Dick’s asking a hard question here. Again, the NCAA is going to decide, their board of governors, which I just referenced, is going to have to make that decision. My prediction — and I think that’s why they acted yesterday with the restricted attendance policy — my prediction is if things escalate in this country, as we’ve seen in other parts of the world, I suspect it’s going to be very difficult for them to hold onto the NCAA Tournament as planned.
That’s just a prediction. It’s not my call. But again they’re conferring with expert doctors and they’re going to have to make these judgments. The tournament starts next week. Of course the Garden is supposed to host the East Regional. They’ll be directly impacted by any decision they make.
But it just seems, Dick, I’m not a doctor here, but it just seems like this trajectory is only intensifying. And so I suspect it’s going to be very difficult to do it.
Q. Commissioner, during the early part of this week Mayor de Blasio went on to different media outlets to talk about his feel about, unless he got the word from the Feds, about what to do here. He thought he wanted all the activities in New York to continue. When you talk about talking to the city, did that include his feedback?
VAL ACKERMAN: No. My information is limited to the contacts that we have. I don’t have — I don’t want to sit up here and pretend I’m an authority on what New York City will do or won’t. I can tell you that my information, from the contact that I have and I trust is that the city is preparing to adopt some measures. I can’t speak how far they’re going to go. But I think every city right now is grappling with large gatherings, public schools, mass transit.
The Theater District, in the case of New York, I mean school closings, of course, have already started to happen. So, look, folks, we’re dealing with just — it’s an extraordinary and in many ways unprecedented set of challenges for all of us.
I take the subway to work. So we’re all — we’re all just having to rely on the authorities who are in the best position to assess the risks and to opine on the available science. And it’s just — it’s just progressing in a way that’s, I think, unprecedented. And so I think you’re going to continue to see these real-time reactions from various entities. Frankly, we know more today than we did a week ago or the week before. And we’ll know more a week from now. And so that’s why I’m the last one to be able to opine on what’s going to happen to the NCAA Tournament that’s supposed to start next Wednesday.
So the city will make its announcement and we’ll see and we’ll take their cues and we’ll go from there. Thank you.