An NCAA Tournament champion was crowned. Two people died. Did March Madness pass the test?
INDIANAPOLIS — Face-painted college hoops junkies, beers in hand, screaming in masks — and many unmasked — were spread throughout the stands. Shoes stomped on bleachers, players felt the vibration — finally — of fans in their midst. High fives, high on life, high on a return to what used to be.
This was sports ecstasy. And it was back, on the biggest stage.
Balls that bounced on courts, echoing into silence. Perfect passes in stadiums seen only on television. Arenas with eerie darkness and locked- up concession stands. All those bad memories of sporting events without fans had mostly disappeared into the madness.
A nation watched as Indianapolis put on one of America's most beloved sporting events since the COVID-19 pandemic invaded everyday life. Sixty-eight teams, 66 games, six venues, nearly 174,000 fans.
And the nation held its collective breath. Would this be the signal of a return to normal life? Would this tournament in Indiana, mostly in Indianapolis, the home of the NCAA, pass the test?
At least two deaths occurred from COVID-19 during the final week of the NCAA tournament, one a fan in town to watch his beloved Alabama, the other a bartender at St. Elmo, Indianapolis' most famous go-to steak house for out-of-towners.
Though the deaths of Luke Ratliff and Michael Gaines have not been contact traced directly to the NCAA tournament, the question looms. Should two deaths overshadow what city, state, local health and NCAA officials are calling an overwhelming success?
"Did the NCAA tournament pass the test? In terms of giving us March Madness, yes," said Don Forsyth, a professor of social psychology at the University of Richmond in Virginia, who studies ethical thought and moral judgment. "But in terms of risk to health, no."
A champion was crowned. Athletes were protected. Two people died.
"Having two deaths in people tied fairly directly to the event?" said George Rutherford, head of the Division of Infectious Disease and Global Epidemiology at University of California, San Francisco. "Doesn’t seem like a great success."
'These deaths should give us all pause'
If the PGA put on a tournament in 110 degree temperatures and two people died of heat exhaustion, a shadow would likely be cast on the sporting event; questions would be asked.
Emerging from the NCAA tournament are two very different viewpoints — one of a triumphant success, the other a tragedy that didn't have to happen.
In one camp are people such as Scott Jones, who says there is no blame to place on the NCAA, even if the virus contraction is linked back to the event. In fact, he says the tournament proves success.
"It's just the latest sports event to demonstrate this can be done," said Jones, an associate professor of marketing at Stetson University, specializing in the business of sports. "Obviously there was the tragedy with the Alabama student. Candidly, I'm surprised it's taken that long to connect a COVID death to attending a (major) sporting event. With us to have gone that long is shocking to me."
The NCAA said it went to extreme measures to test, re-test, follow protocols and protect the athletes. Of the 28,311 COVID-19 tests administered during the tournament by the NCAA, 15 people tested positive.
For fans, attending was voluntary, Jones said.
"In my mind, a fan, i.e. a consumer, has a choice to attend a sporting event," he said. "Some events do come with some risk associated with them."
But there are differences when it comes to COVID, said Brian Hess, with Washington, D.C.-based Sports Fan Coalition, a group whose mission is to protect the rights and interests of sports fans in America.
Equating the possibility of fans dying from heat exhaustion at a PGA event isn't an apples-to-apples comparison with NCAA tournament COVID deaths, he said.
"In large part, things can be done on a personal fan level and sport level to prevent those deaths. They can bring water, the league can put up shade, misting (fans)," Hess said. "Short of wearing a mask, washing your hands and maintaining social distances, there is still a very random factor to COVID."
And that's why the NCAA tournament is not a turning point to go back to regular life, said Brian Dixon, director of Public Health Informatics and an associate professor at the Indiana University Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health.
"These deaths should give us all pause about returning to normal too quickly," he said. "Now is not the time for a full return to normal. Instead, we need to take baby steps toward normal."
Mixed mask compliance
The NCAA's Dan Gavitt implied this week the tournament's success was an example of how to move back to normal life.
"(We did it) in a way that hopefully gives hope to all of us that we are maybe coming out of this pandemic finally," Gavitt, senior vice president of basketball operations, said at a news conference Tuesday. "And doing it safely and responsibly and providing hope that we have better days ahead of us than we’ve had in the past."
Gavitt didn't address the COVID-19 deaths possibly linked to the tournament as he opened the news conference. He didn't mention the deaths until asked about them by an IndyStar reporter.
"Terrible tragedy as you know for those fans that attended here and became sick, possibly here, or before they left their own communities," he said.
For this story, IndyStar requested an interview with the NCAA to ask whether it considered the tournament a success in light of the deaths, but was referred to Gavitt's news conference.
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"I do feel that we had a good plan in place that was executed well with the approval of local health officials both here in Marion County but also in Tippecanoe County and Monroe County, where games took place," Gavitt said Tuesday. "We had very limited capacity, we had contactless concessions and food and the like. Masks, of course, were required 100 percent of the time."
Required yes, but mask compliance by fans during the tournament was mediocre, at best. No hard numbers exist, but in most photos and live shots, about half of fans had their masks on.
"The management of that, of course, was a shared responsibility with the venues that control the environment around health and safety in their venues," said Gavitt. "(These) venues had hosted a lot of events prior to ours."
There was intense planning to remind spectators to keep masked, he said. Ushers held signs up. There were frequent public service announcements. And yet ...
"Fans, when they get excited about their teams," Gavitt said, "there was mixed compliance with that."
'Why take the risk?'
Yes, the NCAA put on college basketball's beloved grand finale. Fans were back to filling out brackets, watching underdogs make magic and seeing unreal endings as long shots were banked in at the buzzer.
"It seemed nearly normal. Except, we are still in the midst of a pandemic, and there were negative consequences," Forsyth said. "The event may have qualified as a superspreader and, in consequence, there were fatalities."
Forsyth believes the tournament was "ill-timed" in the sense that it was just too soon.
"Vaccine rates are climbing," he said. "But communicable disease specialists who know the most about our vulnerabilities continually warn that full precautions — avoiding large gatherings, wear(ing) masks — are needed."
About 33% of the population has received a single dose of the vaccine, Dixon said this week, but there are wide gaps between the people who are protected and those who are not.
Older populations are increasingly protected, but younger populations are not. More than half of new cases surging in Indiana and the United States are among individuals younger than 40, who are less likely to be immunized, he said. And that is the age demographic of many of the NCAA tournament's biggest fans.
"Even though their general risk of death is lower, why take the risk?" Dixon said. "If we want sports — and many of us want sports — to fully return, we need to protect everyone, even those under 40, against this virus."
The NCAA had the ability and did a great job keeping the athletes, coaches and team staff protected, he said.
"But we don’t have good ways to keep fans safe until we as a community, state and nation have nearly two-thirds of all age groups protected from serious disease and death." Dixon said. "Vaccines are wonderful, but they only work if enough people in your social circle — and those you sit by at a sporting event — have taken them."
Case study on how to do things right
Jim Kahler, with the Center of Sports Administration at Ohio University, said he was glad the call came from an Indianapolis newspaper, instead of Texas. Giving his thoughts on a recent Rangers game would have garnered a very different response than he has for the NCAA.
The Rangers hosted their Monday home opener at full capacity, the first major sporting event in America to do so since the pandemic hit. The decision drew ire from many, including President Joe Biden, who called it a "mistake."
"That was hard: 40,000 people packed. COVID is still active. Flu is still active. Are we really wanting to ask for trouble? No, let’s not do that. Let’s be sensible about it," said Tarrant County Public Health Director Vinny Taneja after the game, according to FanNation. "If we continue to do what we did (Monday), we’re asking for trouble."
Kahler said he believes there will be stories emerging in the next month that "will end up being a much different case" from the stories of how the NCAA tournament will turn out.
"I believe the NCAA and city of Indianapolis did an amazing job when you consider the circumstances and extra logistical challenges presented with this year's tournament," Kahler said. "When you look at what the NBA did in Orlando and now the NCAA in Indianapolis, I think you're looking at two case studies on how to do things right."
It's still too soon to tell whether the tournament in Indianapolis will lead to an outbreak of COVID cases, experts say. It took nearly a month after the Sturgis motorcycle rally last year before reports that thousands of people who attended the event had tested positive for COVID.
If a COVID connection such as that unfolds as weeks pass after the tournament, the NCAA still likely could not be held liable, even for deaths, said Allison K. Hoffman, an expert on health care law and professor at Penn Law School in Philadelphia.
"It would be a hard case to argue. There’s much more clarity now on how COVID is transmitted and what reasonable precautions against transmission require," she said. "I believe the NCAA was taking these precautions."
A person would have to prove that they followed all of the guidelines the NCAA had in place and still contracted COVID at the tournament.
"Maybe someone could argue that with cases spiking, it was negligent to let fans into the games at all," she said. "That might be the best argument, but it’s not a strong argument."
Fans also were behaving in risky ways, going into packed bars, socializing without masks, and that is much more likely to have led to their contracting COVID than sitting at a game, Hoffman said.
"Which makes these cases even harder to argue," she said. "We all know enough now at this point to know that we’re taking on risk when in public places in close contact with others."
Two lives well lived ... lost
As the tournament played out in Indianapolis, as the frenzy of the sport Luke Ratliff loved so much continued, he lay in a hospital. As the Final Four was ready to erupt, he died.
Ratliff was an Alabama superfan who came to Indianapolis to follow the team in its game against UCLA at Hinkle Fieldhouse March 28. After returning to Tuscaloosa the next day, Ratliff was hospitalized.
A native of North Carolina, he was known on Alabama's campus as the most visible and popular fan at Crimson Tide basketball games. Ratliff died from complications of COVID-19.
"He was my son and my best friend,” his dad, Bryan Ratliff, told The Tuscaloosa News. “But he had an extended Alabama family that I never met and he loved them and they loved him.”
Michael Gaines died the first night of the Final Four in Indianapolis, April 3 — his 45th birthday. It was the same day St. Elmo briefly closed after nine of its employees tested positive for COVID.
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Colleagues told IndyStar they will remember Gaines, a longtime bartender at the restaurant, as a man who was always smiling, loved music and got a kick out of having inside jokes with all sorts of people.
Gaines was larger than life and could usually be found behind the upstairs bar at St. Elmo.
“He was always in a great mood," said former co-worker Adam Marker. "He was Mr. Happy Go Lucky.”
It may take weeks — or the world may never know — whether the deaths of Ratliff and Gaines were a result of the NCAA tournament being held with fans.
So the question lingers. A champion was crowned. Two people died. Did the NCAA tournament pass the test?