The 2020 college sports landscape changed dramatically Tuesday when the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced they are postponing their fall seasons over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. This has an impact on many sports, with football being at the top of that list in a number of ways.
The following list of 10 questions and answers is an attempt to explain what just happened and what might happen next:
*So, how did we get here? Sure, let’s start with the big one. Without going too deep or getting too political, the seemingly main reasons two major conferences are postponing their fall sports seasons – and potentially taking a huge financial hit in the process – are directly tied to coronavirus itself.
The United States does not have a handle on a virus that started circulating here more than six months ago. Earlier this summer, it looked like we were on a more encouraging path. But then cases started spiking again.
There have been almost 6 million positive tests and 160,000 deaths – numbers that even when taken on a per capita basis are quite troubling compared to most other similar countries.
While it’s true that college athletes are at a comparably low risk of developing an immediately severe case of the virus that would require hospitalization or worse, leaders are concerned about the long-term impacts of coronavirus – particularly a heart inflammation condition called myocarditis that has been linked to coronavirus and has been found in several college athletes already.
*But other big-time sports are playing. What’s different here? Indeed, professional sports leagues have resumed or started in different ways. The NHL, NBA and WNBA are playing their seasons in a bubble. MLS resumed in a bubble and is transitioning out of it. MLB and the NFL are trying to play without bubbles.
But in every case, these are pro athletes who are employed. You can’t reasonably put college athletes in a bubble because they’re students who might be taking in-person classes. And college programs are so disparate. Trying to create one uniform policy to govern a safe college sports season doesn’t seem feasible – and wasn’t deemed feasible by the Big Ten and Pac-12.
*Hey, some other conferences are still talking about having fall football. What’s up with that? Yeah, that’s pretty interesting. The ACC and SEC seem determined to stay on course – at least for now – and have their seasons. The Big 12 seems to be leaning toward playing. How do some conferences think it’s safe to play while others don’t?
Let’s start with the least cynical answer: Just as different people have identified different risk tolerance around the virus, so have different conferences. There are extremes that you see on viral videos – anti-maskers yelling at store employees, for example – but in real life there is a lot of grey area. What might be safe to someone isn’t to someone else.
You can get doctors to interpret numbers a lot of different ways. The Big Ten and Pac-12 are looking at the data in one way. Other conferences are looking at it another way.
OK, now a more cynical answer: Money and politics. Maybe the conferences determined to play are focused on money instead of science, while the Big Ten and Pac-12 are swallowing hard but taking the financial hit. There’s also generally a red state/blue state feel to who is planning on playing vs. not playing right now.
Want a really cynical answer: The two Power Five conferences that postponed fall sports are the ones whose athletes have been the most vocal so far about organizing for fair treatment and a seeming revolution coming in college sports. Is canceling because of Covid a convenient cover for dulling that movement and regrouping? I tend to think not, but the financial impact of one lost season vs. a future of more fairly shared revenue with players is something to think about.
*This is sure a terrible bit of timing and luck for the Gophers, isn’t it? No doubt. Not only does the athletic department stand to lose a huge chunk of revenue — $75 million is the number that has been reported – but the Gophers football program is coming off its most successful season in decades and had real momentum going into this year. While it should be possible for the program to resume that momentum once Big Ten play resumes, the ability to capitalize immediately has been lost.
*Wait, what’s up with Nebraska? They’re mad. They want to play. And they’re threatening to play a schedule outside of the Big Ten this season. Can they do that? Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren gave a definitive no – unless the school wants to break with the conference and lose its membership.
But make no mistake: Leadership at Nebraska is not mincing words. A joint statement from both football and school leaders read: “We are very disappointed by the Big Ten Conference to postpone the fall football season, as we have been and continue to be ready to play. Safety comes first. Based on the conversations with our medical experts, we continue to strongly believe the absolute safest place for our student athletes is within the rigorous safety protocols, testing procedures and the structure and support provided by Husker Athletics.”
*Football seems particularly risky. Couldn’t the Big Ten still play other, safer fall sports? That’s an interesting one. The Minnesota State High School League, for instance, pushed football and volleyball to the spring but said other fall sports like cross-country and soccer can still play this fall with certain protocols in place.
The problem here is probably two-fold: money and optics. Football is a major revenue-generator that helps fund other non-revenue programs. Athletic departments are going to be in a major cost-saving mode, and if there’s no football there’s no money. Also, playing other sports while football sits idle might not look good even if it makes a certain amount of sense from a scientific standpoint.
*Is playing college football in the spring really a viable option? That’s a great question. First, there would need to be a decreased risk from the virus. That’s no guarantee. Second, there are all sorts of logistical hurdles. When would the season begin? Would football players likely to be chosen in the NFL draft be willing to risk injury or would they opt out? And what would happen if other conferences go ahead with their fall seasons? Would there be any sort of national playoff or would the season be restricted to conference play?
This AP story had some good details, and one key piece is that coaches seem determined to protect the integrity of the 2021 fall season. That likely means whatever happens in the spring would be shorter than a typical season.
*What happens to winter and spring sports? One of the problems with moving fall sports to the spring is that schedules start getting crowded. Maybe that’s easier at the college level, where a multi-sport athlete is more rare than in high school, but it’s still an issue.
There’s also this: Decisions on winter sports, almost exclusively played indoors, are looming sooner than we might think. If the Big Ten has deemed football and other fall unsafe, it’s hard to imagine basketball or hockey getting the go-ahead.
That said, maybe actual consequences like not being able to hold a college sports season because of the pandemic will be an impetus for more people to take preventative measures seriously and help get the virus more under control.
I’m not holding my breath, but there is time. As Andy Slavitt writes, we’re always 4 to 6 weeks away from doing it if we really are willing to make a collective short-term sacrifice.
*Are sports writers rooting for sports to be canceled? Absolutely not. The very definition of being a sports writer means that almost all of us love to write and love sports. Not having sports affects livelihoods, personal enjoyment and much more.
But we are also here to think critically while reporting stories. There are very real and very science-based reasons to postpone sports until the virus is more under control. Those reasons shouldn’t be ignored just because we want sports to be played. The reward requires work.
*I have mixed feelings about all this. Is that normal? Absolutely. If you find yourself frustrated that there won’t be Gophers sports this fall while understanding to whatever degree why it’s a sound decision, that is perfectly understandable. This pandemic stinks and is forcing a lot of decisions in which either outcome feels bad.
It’s OK to crave normalcy, and it’s OK to be sad that Saturdays won’t feel normal at all this fall.