College football season teeters on the brink
By John Branch
The idea of playing college sports this fall has felt iffy all along, like assembling a massive and unwieldy Jenga tower of good intentions and questionable hopes.
Now, it is teetering with each bit of news, with last week’s among the most seismic in imperiling having a season at all.
The Ivy League shut down sports until at least Jan. 1. Ohio State and North Carolina each had enough positive coronavirus cases among the few athletes on campus that they suspended summer workouts. And the Big Ten Conference soberly announced that most of its fall sports, including football, would play only league games — if they played at all. The Pac-12 Conference did the same Friday, later announcing that its commissioner had tested positive.
One by one the pieces are removed. The tower sways. When will the whole structure come crashing down?
“Nobody wants to be the first one, but when somebody is, then it makes it OK for somebody to be the next one,” Buddy Teevens, the longtime football coach at Dartmouth, said of the Ivy League.
The Big Ten, the NCAA’s richest conference, hedged its bets the day after the Ivy League announcement by paring its fall plans. The Atlantic Coast Conference, another one of the Power Five leagues, said Friday it would decide on its fall sports seasons by the end of the month. Teevens, previously the head coach at Stanford and Tulane, admitted that reality had been seeping in, slowly swamping hope.
“It’s been kind of like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny,” Teevens said. “You kind of knew they didn’t exist, and then finally you were told.”
It was bound to be harder to restart sports collegiately than professionally, with their unique breadth of tricky logistics and prickly issues — billions of dollars of revenues propped onto the backs of tens of thousands of amateur athletes, spread across hundreds of campuses and dozens of conferences sprinkled across every corner of the nation.
Athletics hold an outsized role in the nightmare facing American universities. Schools everywhere are staggering toward fall, unsure how to do the most basic things like have classes. It is a matter of life, death and budgets.
Most are jury-rigging plans to educate online, some entirely. Budgets are in tatters. Students are in limbo. Faculty are torn by the bad options of teaching in person during a pandemic and educating through computer screens. Support workers and others linked to campuses wait, but each day seems to make the view murkier.
Colleges, and the towns that support and rely on them, are microcosms of the nation’s anxiety and uncertainty. They face a grudge match between health and economics. The safest option is to keep campuses closed. That might mean economic devastation to colleges and their communities. Is there middle ground?
Now throw athletics into the cauldron. Unlike most professional sports leagues, several of which are already struggling to cocoon themselves in tightly monitored, self-described bubbles without getting people sick, there is no way to separate college sports from college environments or society at large.
Even small outbreaks could spread like wildfires into a forest. So far, more than 3.1 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, and 133,000 have died. Last Wednesday, the day that the Ivy League canceled fall sports, nearly 60,000 new cases were reported in the U.S., a new high.
Some of those were college athletes. Through Wednesday, at least 426 had tested positive for the coronavirus among roughly 50 Division I programs, but the number of cases is likely much higher. About half of American universities either did not respond to requests for testing results from The New York Times, or declined to provide numbers, under the auspices of protecting the privacy of student-athletes.
Ohio State, in suspending its offseason workout programs this week, did not reveal how many students tested positive. It only said that the shutdown impacted seven sports, including football.
Such news accelerates as the fall sports calendar approaches. And if reasonable people at some of the world’s great universities had not seriously pondered this question before, they are now:
Just why are we doing this? The flip response, rarely said out loud: Money. Under the umbrella of the NCAA, college athletics is an $18 billion enterprise, with schools generating about $10 billion in revenue. And football is the primary moneymaker, especially at places like Ohio State, where the athletics budget surpasses $200 million a year.
Some schools have asked student-athletes to sign waivers to acknowledge the risk of participating during a pandemic. In a letter to the NCAA, a pair of senators called them “legally dubious” and “morally repugnant.”
To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in “Jurassic Park,” questioning the re-creation of dinosaurs: College sports have been so preoccupied with whether or not they could return in the fall that they did not stop to think if they should.
Enter the Ivy League, with its high educational standards and modest athletic ambitions (and significantly lower reliance on revenue from sports compared with Power Five conferences). It was the first Division I conference to shut down in the spring. It was the first to reject returning in the fall.
“I think other conferences around the country are going to follow,” Columbia Athletic Director Peter Pilling said.
Not without a fight. The more money at stake, the more contortions that universities may perform to make sports happen.
Contingency plans for the football season are being made. It is a given, by now, that there may be no fans in the stands. Seasons might be reduced in scope or pushed to spring, Pac-12 Conference Commissioner Larry Scott conceded earlier this month. The Big Ten’s move to conference-only games is a half step toward canceling.
The hope is to salvage something. But even if seasons start, outbreaks could end them suddenly, just as they did basketball tournaments and spring sports.
The NCAA, which gave Americans a splash-in-the-face wake-up call when it called off its basketball tournaments last March, may not react with such sweeping gusto this time.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact college sports nationally, the NCAA supports its members as they make important decisions based on their specific circumstances and in the best interest of college athletes’ health and well-being,” it said in a statement Thursday.
But could the Pac-12 shutter while the Big Ten plays on? Or will one major conference’s decision start the domino chain?
Most expect answers by the end of July. “I don’t like the trends out there right now, with the numbers and virus increases you see across the country,” Tom Wistrcill, commissioner of the Big Sky Conference, told the Bozeman (Montana) Daily Chronicle. He estimated the odds for fall sports at 50-50.
Such a half-empty analysis would have seemed unlikely back in March. Leagues like the NBA and Major League Baseball, along with most Americans, considered the virus a passing storm to wait out.
Sports did their part. They sheltered in place. No one can blame the sports world for the broad outbreak or the continued surges through the summer. Not yet.