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Champions Crowned, N.C.A.A. Returns to Its Pre-Covid Problems

INDIANAPOLIS — In the early hours of Tuesday morning, as the task of disassembling this year’s N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championship game stage was underway — folding up tables, lowering the baskets, removing the cardboard cutouts of fans — a worker with a wide dry mop was sweeping confetti into a pile.

It was hard, in an all-but-empty arena, not to see some poetry in the moment, as if the detritus of the last year might be swept up for placement in history’s trash can.

This year’s tournament will be remembered, yes, for Gonzaga’s long stretch toward an unbeaten season that came up 40 minutes short against a relentless Baylor team, which if not for its own midseason coronavirus pause might have been pursuing a perfect season, too.

But the enduring memories of this pandemic season will be less about basketball than of nasal swabs, wiped out games and mostly absent fans, and for the moment in time when the fig leaf that cloaked the exploitation of big-time college athletes fluttered to the ground like ticker tape.

Still, there was something about walking out of Lucas Oil Stadium that felt like stepping through a portal — not the one for transfers; far too crowded — into a post-pandemic world.

If the swift, stunning cancellation of last year’s tournament signaled to the country what the coronavirus was about to wreak, then this year’s tournaments might be the turning of a final page.

For all their flaws, and the legitimate questions about whether they should have been played, the men’s tournament — in which all 68 teams descended upon Indianapolis for what would be a 23-day stay for the finalists — and the women’s tournament in Texas came at a moment of transition.

Coronavirus cases nationwide have risen over the last two weeks — including in Marion County, Ind., which includes Indianapolis, where cases jumped 39 percent since the tournament began. A University of Alabama student died from complications of Covid-19 after watching his team play in the tournament.

But on Saturday alone, more than four million people were vaccinated nationwide; entering the weekend, nearly a third of the U.S. population had received at least one shot of a vaccine.

The Texas Rangers, not without criticism, hosted a baseball game in a nearly full stadium on Monday night — about the same time Gonzaga and Baylor tipped off in a mostly empty stadium. The Washington Nationals, who had the nine players who either tested positive for the coronavirus or were found to be in close contact with those who had, were preparing to play their deferred season opener on Tuesday.

It is easy to envision the gates being thrown open to college sports before long.

It may not be in time for the College World Series in baseball and softball or the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs this spring. But the Big Ten Conference recently said it was dropping its policy on fan attendance and would defer to local health guidelines, leaving open the possibility of having crowds at spring football scrimmages. Announcements have been made by some Southeastern Conference schools to have capacity crowds for football in the fall.

It’s hard to say what that new normal will look like.

Will Michigan’s Big House, with its 107,601-seat capacity, feel like an empty nest because of some football fans’ lingering concerns about massive public gatherings or their realization that sitting in an easy chair in front of a big screen outweighs the hassle of game-day traffic?

The pandemic has punched a hole in many athletic department budgets, leaving some schools to slash sports while preserving the moneymakers and to make urgent pleas to donors for more help.

One thing is for certain: The assault on the college sports business model will not end with the pandemic. If anything, the public health crisis only deferred the confrontation.

A reckoning over athletes’ ability to cash in on their fame is beckoning, with Congress and state legislatures eager to tilt the scales toward the players. Imagine the opportunities Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs might have had after his moonshot winner against U.C.L.A. or the sponsors that would court his childhood friend, the UConn star Paige Bueckers, to market toward her 800,000 Instagram followers.

Also at hand are questions about loosening transfer rules and a review of gender equity between men’s and women’s sports that was forced by the visible differences between the two basketball tournaments in coronavirus testing, weight rooms and other arrangements.

All of the issues have surfaced (or resurfaced) as the Supreme Court mulls whether to chip away or take a sledgehammer to the foundation the college athletics industry is built on — not having to pay players for their labor.

Those matters subsumed basketball for much of the last three weeks, and as a byproduct steered the constant presence of the virus slightly more toward the background than usual.

The N.C.A.A.’s president, Mark Emmert, from the moment he strode through Hinkle Fieldhouse on the tournament’s first full day, found himself addressing gender equity and athletes’ rights with news reporters and the players themselves far more than basketball or the pandemic.

“They have to be the benchmarks that we judge gender equity by,” Emmert said of the tournaments on Thursday. “If we’re failing at that level, we’re failing across the board.”

So perhaps the end to this basketball season was a fitting one. Gonzaga’s otherwise perfect season was left with a blemish to end the men’s tournament, and no team endured more than the Stanford women, who spent nine weeks away from campus on the way to what their coach, Tara VanDerveer, called “the Covid championship,” because returning would have meant spending two weeks in quarantine.

Early on in that journey, VanDerveer told me: “We’re road warriors, but we can’t be road, road, road warriors. We’re not nomads.” She also said something else that stuck — that neither she nor her team was hung up on winning a long-sought title.

The best teams, she said, often have a different motivation — the season is so much fun, they don’t want it to end.

This year, even for the champions, that may not have been the case.

Alan Blinder and Gillian R. Brassil contributed reporting.

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