- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2003

The NCAA men's basketball tournament, one of America's biggest sporting events, will go on as scheduled despite impending war with Iraq. Major League Baseball reached the opposite decision last night, canceling a much-ballyhooed two-game trip to Japan, where Oakland and Seattle were to open the 2003 regular season.

NCAA president Myles Brand said yesterday that after four months of studying contingency plans and regular contact with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, there was no pressing cause to amend the schedule for any NCAA competition.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the young men and women who are in the desert and elsewhere defending our freedom," Brand said. "We are also concerned that life go on as normal. We see no reason, after consulting with [Homeland Security] Secretary [Tom] Ridge, to make any alterations to our plan.

"We felt that this was the right decision, and have no hesitation whatsoever having made it."

The men's tournament began last night with the play-in game between Texas Southern and UNC Asheville. Full play in the men's tournament begins tomorrow, and in the women's tournament Saturday. Security measures will be enhanced, just as they were last year following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"The president hopes that people will continue with their normal lives," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "And that's one of the reasons that the Department of Homeland Security was created and the alert codes were created."

Baseball could not reach the same conclusion, given the extensive travel the Japan trip required. The two-game series, set since November, was to be a prominent part of MLB's international marketing efforts. The games, to be played in Tokyo March 25 and 26, have been rescheduled for April 3 and June 30 in Oakland. The 2003 season will now begin March 30 with Texas playing at Anaheim.

"It is with great regret that I take this action," said MLB commissioner Bud Selig. "I hope our fans and business partners in Japan understand that this difficult decision is only made in response to the most serious of circumstances. While I don't doubt the exemplary security efforts that the city of Tokyo and the government of Japan were prepared to provide for our players and personnel, I had to weigh those security preparations against a very unpleasant and potentially dangerous set of variables that go along with a nation on the brink of war."

MLB Players Association Don Fehr signed off on the decision and said MLB would return to Japan as soon as possible.

Uncertainty remains in several other sports as President Bush's 48-hour ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq enters its final hours. Most notably, broadcast plans for the men's basketball tournament remain decidedly unsettled.

CBS, which is paying $6 billion over the next 11 years for the rights to air the men's tourney, was to hold a conference call yesterday to discuss the first weekend of its basketball coverage. Instead, it made no public comment, with its executives remaining huddled in contingency meetings. Should CBS elect to preempt broadcasts of the tournament for war coverage, a likely scenario, games probably will shift to other Viacom-owned cable networks such as TNN and MTV, as well as the Disney-owned ESPN.

ESPN, under a short-term deal still being discussed with CBS, would take over games tomorrow and Friday, the two busiest days of the tournament with 16 games each day. But ESPN would take few, if any, games over the weekend when its own schedule is too packed to accommodate additional scheduling demands. ESPN is airing the entire women's basketball tournament and said it would not adjust that schedule for the men's tournament.

Sports has a decidedly mixed history of playing during war and national conflict. During World War II, as well as the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars, major sports leagues such as MLB, the NFL, NBA and NHL and major college sports played on with few, if any, interruptions. They did so even as rosters were drastically thinned by players serving in the military. Many other sports, including tennis, golf, auto racing, boxing, soccer and the Olympics, canceled all major competition during World War II.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, baseball took nearly a week off before resuming play, while the NFL postponed an entire weekend's worth of games. Both leagues lengthened their regular seasons that year to make up the games. Most NCAA schools also postponed or canceled football games the weekend after the attacks.

The U.S. government has been in regular consultation with most of the major sports leagues in recent days, but has not given any sports organization a firm directive on whether to travel and play.

Altering the men's basketball tournament schedule would have had serious financial ramifications for the NCAA and its sponsors. The men's tournament provides more than 85 percent of the NCAA's total operating budget each year, and is by far the single largest source of income for all levels of college sports.

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