Big Ten and Pac-12 are first marquee conferences to postpone football

By Alan Blinder and Billy Witz

Two of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful college football conferences abandoned their plans to play this fall over coronavirus concerns, a move that fractured the season and promised repercussions far beyond the playing field, even as other top leagues were publicly poised to begin games next month.

The decisions by the two conferences, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, extended the greatest crisis in the history of college athletics, a multibillion-dollar industry that depends heavily on football to underwrite lower-profile sports and which provides universities with a national profile they use to recruit students and attract donations.

By canceling games this autumn, the two conferences defied calls by some coaches and players and by President Donald Trump to mount a season in the face of the virus’s largely unchecked spread. The plans of other leading leagues to start playing by late September could now quickly change, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 may ultimately move their seasons to the spring.

Playing at this stage of the pandemic, though, presented “too much uncertainty, too much risk,” Kevin Warren, the Big Ten commissioner, said in an interview Tuesday.

“You have to listen to your medical experts,” Warren said. “There’s a lot of emotion involved with this, but when you look at the health and well being of our student-athletes, I feel very confident that we made the right decision.”

The moves by both leagues came after intense deliberations among university presidents and chancellors, but the decisions were not universally supported by administrators, coaches and players.

“This is an incredibly sad day for our student-athletes, who have worked so hard and been so vigilant fighting against this pandemic to get this close to their season,” said Gene Smith, Ohio State’s athletic director. The university had sought a delay to the season’s start instead of a sweeping postponement, he said.

Universities in the Pac-12 presented a more united front. Ray Anderson, Arizona State’s athletic director, said: “Until we have more clarity, we’re not going to go forward.”

College football’s decentralized power structure, which allows different approaches by each conference, means that old and new powerhouses like Ohio State and Oregon will not compete this autumn while other leading programs, like Alabama, Clemson and Louisiana State, may still play.

The other major conferences — the Atlantic Coast, the Big 12 and the Southeastern — will face extraordinary pressure in the coming days. College sports administrators are particularly wary of being seen as motivated by money instead of the safety of players, coaches and others, and any effort to press ahead with a season would assuredly provoke new criticism of an industry already under scrutiny by elected officials and the courts.

The ACC said Tuesday that it would “continue to make decisions based on medical advice” and that it was “prepared to adjust as medical information and the landscape” evolved.

The SEC commissioner, Greg Sankey, said he was still “comfortable” with his league’s approach but that the conference would “continue to refine our policies and protocols for a safe return to sports.”

Although the Big Ten and the Pac-12 upended plans for football, their decisions affected all of their fall sports, including cross-country, field hockey, soccer and volleyball.

The Pac-12 opted for a more far-reaching approach, postponing all athletic competitions, including in winter sports like basketball, until at least 2021.

The Big Ten’s internal divisions were on vivid display in the hours after the decision. In a statement, Nebraska officials pronounced themselves “very disappointed” and suggested they might try to find a way for their students to compete this fall. (Some college sports officials scoffed at the prospect, in part because of assorted contracts.)

But the Pac-12 said its vote was unanimous.

Dr. Doug Aukerman, senior associate athletic director at Oregon State and head of the conference’s medical advisory board, said his group had two major concerns: that the virus was not under control near the conference’s universities and that there were too many unknowns about health risks related to the virus, including heart damage.

With Pac-12 teams scheduled to begin training camp next week, it appeared all but impossible to play safely, officials said.

“We’re essentially going into a contact season asking them right now to disregard a lot of the guidelines, both federally and locally,” Aukerman said.

He added: “Playing contact sports, we know there’s going to be a higher risk of spread.”

The Pac-12 had moved its planned kickoff to Sept. 26. But league officials saw no sign that conditions on campuses would improve as students began returning, and Commissioner Larry Scott said the presidents wanted to give athletes certainty, even if it amounted to bad news.

Some athletes were not appeased by the decision.

The Pac-12 unity group, which for the last two weeks has pressed Scott for greater health protections, among other demands, issued a statement criticizing the conference’s “haphazard” response to the virus and what it called a lack of transparency with players. The group called for preserving athletes’ eligibility — something Scott said the conference would push for from the NCAA — as well as access to athletic department resources and uniform safety measures when football returns.

The financial consequences of the decisions will be enormous, starving schools of tens of millions of dollars unless the leagues can play in the spring. Even if they do, perhaps arresting a greater economic calamity, the delay of football revenues will cause new pain on campuses and in communities across the country. The two conferences together include 26 universities, including Iowa, Michigan, Stanford and Washington.

Wisconsin, for instance, has said it could miss out on up to $100 million without a football season, and top leaders at the university said Tuesday that the decision not to play this fall would hurt “not only our athletic department, but the many businesses and members of our community who rely on Badger events to support their livelihoods.”

Last year, college football brought in nearly $1.6 billion in advertising, excluding digital platforms, according to research firm Kantar.

As the most powerful conferences assessed their seasons, privately, and sometimes publicly, some administrators were skeptical that any of America’s top teams would play a single down before the end of 2020.

Next spring could also prove a stretch. Although the Big Ten and Pac-12 said they would consider playing football and other postponed fall sports early in 2021, Warren refused to commit to a plan.

“We’ll have to start digging in and see what feasibility for it exists,” said Warren, whose son plays football for Mississippi State, an SEC school. “But you have to be mindful that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic.”

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