BIG EAST Tournament continues at MSG despite NCAA ruling

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Photo by Jack Phillips

Val Ackerman speaks to the media about COVID-19 at the BIG EAST awards ceremony.

Jack Phillips

NEW YORK CITY — To end the conference’s awards ceremony, BIG EAST Commissioner Val Ackerman addressed how the league plans to deal with the rapid spread of coronavirus during this week’s conference tournament.

“We are moving forward with the tournament as planned, but it wasn’t without careful deliberation with all of our schools over the past several days including most recently this afternoon,” Ackerman said. “We recognize the fast-moving and, in many ways, unprecedented circumstances that we and other sports organizations are facing as we strive to conduct safe events for our participants and spectators.”

Ackerman said because those who are making decisions are not medical professionals, they will rely on the guidance of governmental authorities on how to best proceed given the state of COVID-19. The conference has conferred with the NCAA, and the last they had heard was the medical expert had “not advised the cancellation of sports events at this time.”

The BIG EAST planned on awaiting the NCAA’s guidance about the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments, which begin next week. That decision came one minute into the BIG EAST’s ceremony when NCAA President Mark Emmert issued a statement on Twitter about limiting fan attendance due to COVID-19.

“I have made the decision to conduct our upcoming championship events, including the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, with only essential staff and limited family attendance,” Emmert said in the statement. “This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student athletes.”

CBS Sports & Turner Sports released a joint statement Wednesday night to support the NCAA’s ruling.

However, Ackerman said the NCAA is in a different position than the BIG EAST because the NCAA Tournament begins next week, while the BIG EAST Tournament starts Wednesday night and continues for the next three days.

“As far as tonight goes, The Garden is open to spectators this evening,” Ackerman said. “We are ready for all contingencies tomorrow. We are ready to put in a plan in place if we need to.”

Emmert told the Associated Press that the NCAA is considering “moving the men’s Final Four from Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium to a smaller arena.”

Not only has the BIG EAST contacted the NCAA, it has also kept up with other conferences’ rulings — like the Atlantic 10 Conference, which began play today — on continuing their tournaments as planned.

“We are taking our cues with respect to the conduct of a safe event from the governmental authorities weeding a response to the virus here in New York City, with whom we have a direct line of communication,” Ackerman said.

The league has dealt with city officials for the past few days and had a call Wednesday afternoon. Ackerman said as of now, large public gatherings in the city have not been canceled. But people should follow hygiene recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, especially for the elderly and those with preexisting health conditions.

“We do not believe that the guidance provided by the city up to this point warranted or now warrants a preemptory cancellation by our conference of the BIG EAST Tournament,” Ackerman said. “We and our schools are prepared to adjust during the tournament if the city guidance is altered and or the state of New York issues any COVID-19 directives.”

However, Ackerman said Madison Square Garden has already decided to implement preventative measures to provide a safe and clean environment for the 10 schools and thousands of fans.

After Wednesday night’s session, the games won’t resume until noon Thursday. Ackerman said the conference will assess the situation tonight and will issue a decision when they get the information to do so. If there are any major changes, Ackerman said refunds would be part of the policy.

The Big Ten announced Wednesday night there will be “no fans at any further Big Ten winter/spring competitions.”

“As I’ve said, as of my remarks here, I’ve not heard from the city of New York, with whom I’ve been in contact multiple times daily,” Ackerman said. “We have not heard about any directives from the state of New York, and some other states have gotten those instructions from the governor’s office. Those have not happened yet in the state of New York.”

Similar to the NBA and other conferences, Ackerman said the BIG EAST is limiting access to locker rooms to “essential school personnel” and also minimizing interactions between the public and the student-athletes within MSG.

“We believe this year’s tournament will be as competitive, if not more so, than in any other point in the past seven years, and we hope we can add to the long list of magic moments this one-of-a-kind sporting event at the world’s most famous arena has long been known for,” Ackerman said.

This story was written by Zoe Comerford. She can be reached at isabel.comerford@marquette.edu or on Twitter @zoe_comerford.