COMMENTARY

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The ladder stood beneath the basket, as it does any time the Big 12 tournament draws to a close.

But this time no triumphant player or coach was headed up with a pair of scissors to snip off a piece of the championship net. No one was there at all.

This ladder was a lonely instrument of destruction, allowing workers to eventually dismantle the wiring behind the backboard for games that would no longer be played.

No one knows when they’ll be played again, which makes this the most wretched moment in modern American sports history.

The NCAA tournament is the best event in American sports, and its absence is a shocking blow to our national psyche. It is the best because it is the only sporting event which actually delivers the goods in a world that tells us anything is possible. Year after year since 1939, March Madness proves that to be true.

That’s been robbed from us now.

The week after Sept. 11, 2001 is the only precedent from the past 100 years, but even that felt different than this. After the initial shock and rage subsided, there was an overwhelming need to join together. Sports were the perfect outlet for healing.

Even someone who grew up with a lifelong disdain for the New York Mets could feel their spirits being lifted as a ball carried off of Mike Piazza’s bat into eternity. That night, life began to feel a little bit normal again in New York and well beyond.

But now sports cannot bring us together. Nothing can bring us together. We are being told to stay apart.

Bizarrely, staying apart is what is needed to protect the collective good. But that solution contains so much personal distance and probable loneliness that the first natural instinct is to question whether it’s even worth it.

Sure, potentially saving people’s lives sounds great on the surface.

But when the hell do we get to interact with those people again? What’s the point of saving anything if we’re completely miserable in the process of being saved?

Again, those are the first instincts more so than the correct ones — because sports strike us on a purely emotional level.

At the very least, they are our escape from the mundane. And as we learned after 9/11, they can also be our escape from misery.

But now we are here: Descending into despair with no emotional life preserver to grab on to.

Ironically, the expectation is that this action will literally preserve life itself.

It is that thought that must occupy the front of our minds as we try to grasp a scenario humanity itself likely hasn’t faced since the closing months of World War I.

Fans, coaches, journalists — we’ll all get to experience the thing we love again, frustrating as it may be to not know when. West Virginia seniors Jermaine Haley, Logan Routt and Chase Harler do not have such a luxury.

All three were deprived of the opportunity to play with their teammates at least two more times.

“We got together and talked about our time here,” Harler told MetroNews SportsLine. “We found it kind of weird we didn’t have a say in when our career ended.”

In particular, Haley was playing his best basketball heading into the postseason. A few more games playing soundly at point guard and showing off his versatility may have increased his odds of landing a pro contract, regardless of what country it might be in.

Haley didn’t just lose out on another chance to be a Mountaineer. He might have lost money.

That’s the way it is all over the college sports landscape right now. Hundreds of athletes are missing out on something, whether it’s simply the memories you make ending your career or better securing their futures.

Medical experts indicate this path is the best way to better secure our own futures, and based on daily reports out of Italy it seems awfully prudent to heed their advice. If we wait too long, and perhaps we already have, the consequences will be devastating.

But doing the right thing doesn’t always feel good.

Truth is, it feels terrible.

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