Coronavirus concerns: The process behind MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher’s decision to cancel sports

Mid-American Conference canceled basketball tournament, all athletic competition within six hours

Mid-American Conference Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher gives the state of the conference address during MAC Media Day July 23 at Ford Field.

Jon Steinbrecher's notepad relaxed on his lap. The lower half of his body was tucked in bed, his mind submerged with thoughts and questions on an impeding decision as the coronavirus pandemic continued its surge across the United States.

He began to pen those concepts shortly after 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, filling his sheet of paper with information on the steps that needed to be taken the next morning.

Steinbrecher, the Mid-American Conference commissioner since 2009, didn't fall asleep until 1 a.m. At the time, he wasn't sure what was going to happen with the MAC tournament – already closed to the general public – at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But he knew there was a lengthy discussion to be had.

Despite efforts to ensure safety and play the tournament, Steinbrecher canceled the event at 12:05 p.m. Thursday. Less than six hours later, all winter and spring athletic competitions were canceled for the remainder of the academic year.

The process of Steinbrecher's choices began at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Steinbrecher learned Utah Jazz all-star Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, known specifically as COVID-19. His case led the NBA to suspend its season. The next day, Gobert's teammate, Donovan Mitchell, also tested positive.

"The wheels automatically started grinding," Steinbrecher said over the phone. "You felt like it meant something, but you didn't know what it meant. Playing in an NBA arena, the logical question was, 'Has Utah been here lately?'"

Well, the Jazz had been at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on March 2, nine days before Gobert's positive test. After a full day of women's basketball tournament quarterfinals, Steinbrecher left the office, drove home and, by 11 p.m., got on the phone with Len Komoroski, the CEO of the Cavaliers and the arena.

They spoke through potential issues created by Gobert's diagnosis of the coronavirus. The conversation filtered down to two key questions – where specifically were the Jazz in the arena and who came in contact with the players?

"We go through an extensive sanitation process after every event," Komoroski said. "There were actually five events that occurred since the Jazz were in town prior to the MAC coming here as well, so that process has been repeated continually throughout that, not to mention when the usage is actually taking place by the MAC."

Steinbrecher woke at 5 a.m. Thursday and went through his morning routine – shower, dress and prepare for another day. But March 12, a day that will forever be remembered in sports history, involved two of the most influential decisions the commissioner has made in his 11-year tenure.

"It wasn't the best night of sleep I've ever had," Steinbrecher said.

He was in his office, located in downtown Cleveland, by 6 a.m. Operating on four hours of sleep, there was work to be done.

Steinbrecher's first call was to Cleveland director of public health Merle Gordon. They were on the phone by 7 a.m. to discuss questions brought up in the late-night call with Komoroski.

"What the science was telling us was that the virus can live outside the body on surfaces anywhere from three hours to three or four days," Steinbrecher said. "It was eight days before we had been to the building and there were five other events since that time. We were very confident in terms of that."

Planning to go forward with the tournament, Steinbrecher closed off the locker room that was used by the Jazz.

But Steinbrecher began to ask further questions.

What about points of contact between Jazz personnel and people employed at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse?

"We found that there were no points of contact, so that took that off," he said. "Given those pieces of information, we felt good about that."

Steinbrecher already had scheduled an 8 a.m. meeting with all 12 MAC athletic directors. The original agenda was thrown out.

The group instead extensively discussed the impact of the coronavirus on the tournament. For hours, each athletic director gave their opinion on the situation. They spoke at length about the tournament, also giving a few comments on spring sports.

One of the scenarios was to implement enhanced medical screening in the arena with a protocol the MAC was developing through doctors at university hospitals along with having each athletic director speak one-on-one with student-athletes about continuing to play in the tournament.

"We talked for a long time about trying to play this thing," Steinbrecher said. "(The athletic directors) are advocates for the student-athletes. This is a perishable item, and we all recognized that. At the end of the day, when the decision was made, everyone was fully on board."

Steinbrecher also hosted a teleconference with every MAC president to break down the possible scenarios.

The idea was to continue the tournament.

That didn't last long.

"As I'm driving to the arena around 11:30 a.m., I made the decision that we needed to shut this down," Steinbrecher said. "It was beginning to come clear we had to focus on something other than the games. We needed to get people back to their homes."

Once Steinbrecher arrived at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, he called Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, a close friend, to inquire about what the Big 12 was doing to combat coronavirus concerns.

The tight-knit relationship between Steinbrecher and Bowlsby dates back to the 1980s. They first interacted with each other when Bowlsby was the athletic director at Northern Iowa and Steinbrecher was an assistant in the Mid-Continent Conference, now known as the Summit League. The conversation was brief, as both commissioners were busy handling the situation.

Steinbrecher wanted to check that he was making the right decision.

"I have a great deal of trust in his judgment," Steinbrecher said. "I knew they were tracking the same issues."

Steinbrecher learned from Bowlsby the Big 12 was shutting down its conference tournament. The Big Ten and Pac-12 were doing the same. Later on, the SEC and ACC followed suit.

"That bolstered my confidence in the actions we were taking," Steinbrecher said.

Deciding to cancel the tournament while driving to the arena, Steinbrecher's list of tasks grew insurmountably. To provide extra time, he pushed back the start of the first men's quarterfinal game from noon to 1 p.m. He first contacted the athletic directors and presidents of the MAC. Then, he took charge of mobilizing staff, preparing a public address announcement to those in the area, finding a time slot for a press conference and reaching out to sponsorship groups and television partners.

There was a tight window for a multitude of actions.

The MAC tournament was officially canceled at 12:05 p.m.

Steinbrecher's press conference began at 12:13 p.m. and lasted for 11 minutes. By 1 p.m., he was back in a meeting, which lasted until 2:30 p.m., with the MAC athletic directors in Cleveland to have them advise him on what to do with spring sports for the remainder of the academic year.

Next on Steinbrecher's list was a 4 p.m. teleconference with university presidents.

"Following all of that, I provided a directive to membership that we were shutting down all competitions – regular season and championship – for the remainder of the spring," Steinbrecher said.

The NCAA announced its cancellation of the remaining winter and spring championships, including the NCAA Tournament and College World Series, at 4:16 p.m. Steinbrecher's call to terminate winter and spring sports was publicly announced at 5:49 p.m.

Along with canceling regular season and championship competition, practices and in-person recruiting were suspended.

The biggest question moving forward came immediately. 

Will affected seniors be granted an extra year of athletic eligibility? 

As the vice-chair of the NCAA Division I Council, Steinbrecher spoke with the Council Coordination Committee on a teleconference Friday morning to begin discussions of giving another year of eligibility to athletes in spring sports.

The NCAA announced at 2:30 p.m. it would provide another year of eligibility for all Division I athletes who participated in spring sports.

"Council leadership agreed that eligibility relief is appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports," the statement read. "Details of eligibility relief will be finalized at a later time. Additional issues with NCAA rules must be addressed, and appropriate governance bodies will work through those in the coming days and weeks."

Central Michigan athletic director Michael Alford endorsed the NCAA's move to reimburse eligibility.

"Terrific news for spring sport student-athletes," Alford said. "I know there are a lot of details to still work on by the committee but this was the right decision."

Steinbrecher noted that he isn't sure what decision will be made for athletes that participated in winter sports, like basketball, wrestling and gymnastics, since most seasons were almost or already complete.

"I don't know exactly what the timeline on any of this will be," Steinbrecher said. "I think we need to move as deliberately as we can, but we can't rush through this. We need to be thoughtful.

"You have to connect the dots to say, 'What does that mean if you have incoming freshmen that are going to take those places on the squad? Do you have the ability to increase funding?' All those types of things have to be figured out. We need to make sure everything is buttoned up as we move through the actions that will be considered."

The decisions made weren't easy, but Steinbrecher believes his action plan was the best option to ensure safety for everyone involved within his conference.

"Crisis management principles were followed," Steinbrecher said, "which are to gather the pertinent information, disseminate the information with the appropriate parties, have good lines of communication, make a decision and disseminate the decision.

"It helps when you have really good people around you, and that's what we have in this league."