Signs that the global health crisis would curtail colleges’ fall sports seasons have become more obvious in the last several weeks, as student-athletes and staffers nationwide tested positive for the coronavirus and verified case numbers soared in vast swaths of the U.S.

Top institutional and league leaders clung to the possibility of fielding sports, namely football, amid public campaigns to preserve them and political pressure, including from President Donald Trump. Athletics officials nationwide feared early in the pandemic what the loss of football might do to their budgets.

The exact losses are still unknown, however, Moody’s Investors Service pointed out in a commentary Wednesday that football accounted for 40% of college sports’ $14.6 billion in revenue in the 2018 fiscal year, and that losing it would mean “a potential material revenue shock” for departments. 

The uncertainty ended for two of the top Division I conferences this week, as the Big Ten and Pac-12 postponed fall competitions and tournaments. The duo is part of the Power Five, a group representing the most prominent and wealthy of the college athletic conferences, the remainder of which still plan to compete under modified schedules.

Suspending competitive play, however, does not mean athletic activity will halt entirely on campuses. Some colleges will still hold practices, and while the NCAA has said student-athletes who sit out this season won’t be penalized, many players will likely still be living, learning and training on college grounds.

The latter could prove particularly challenging for athletic departments to oversee. Though the Big Ten and Pac-12 have largely eliminated health risks associated with travel and competitions, they still must impede the virus’s spread among teams, a difficult feat considering the frequent close contact among student-athletes in practices, and in facilities like locker rooms.

Student-athletes are also accustomed to a certain level of training, and taking those opportunities away could influence their mental health, college sports experts say. At the same time, colleges will need to address potential budget holes left by the absence of fall sports revenue and find ways to appease donors who anticipated a typical season.

The solution to these problems is not one-note and will vary largely by institution. And it may not have been crafted yet. 

Athletic departments “may be busier than they would be if actual sports were being played,” said Josephine Potuto, a law professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a longtime expert in college sports law. “At least then, you have a pattern and you know what you’re doing.”

New rules ahead

College sports have been on rocky footing for months, with several Division II and III conferences nixing their seasons before the first major domino fell: the Ivy League, which suspended fall sports competitions in early July.

But as Power Five schools often rely on football revenue to support their entire athletics programs, they tried myriad ways to maintain the season, such as the Big Ten deciding in July to only play within the conference. 

The NCAA greenlit Division I athletic activities to resume starting in June, but it released stringent rules since then that schools and conferences must follow to host fall sports. Among the requirements are student-athletes and sports personnel conducting a daily “health check” before entering an athletic facility, and that training, whenever possible, needs to occur outdoors. 

Divisions II and III cited the burden of meeting NCAA mandates as part of the reason for canceling their fall championships. 

The Big Ten and Pac-12, in their decisions, referenced potential wellness concerns and advice from health professionals to cancel competitions. A spokesperson for the Pac-12 said the league had no comment beyond its public statement. The Big Ten did not respond to a request for comment.  

“The health, safety and well-being of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports has been our number one priority since the start of this current crisis,” conference Commissioner Larry Scott said in the statement. 

Both leagues have released safety protocols that cover everything from the frequency of testing to quarantine procedures. In the case of the Big Ten, student-athletes should be tested weekly, with those who participate in high-contact sports such as football and soccer tested twice weekly. 

Institutions in the two conferences will likely develop new athletics policies now that competitions are paused, Potuto said, adding that they couldn’t do that until they had a clearer picture of the season.

At Michigan State University, which is part of the Big Ten, most of what happens next is still being decided, spokesperson Emily Guerrant wrote in an email. 

Guerrant said football is still in “preseason mode,” though the team will continue small group workouts like it did during the summer. Football players will still have access to its athletic building and training staff. Guerrant did not address other sports in her email. Thirty of 651 Michigan State student-athletes tested for the virus since early June were positive, according to media reports.

A spokesperson for Ohio State University, another Big Ten school, referred Education Dive to a public statement that says student-athletes will have some access to facilities, locker rooms, and other training and nutrition areas. Mental health services will also continue for players.

But student-athletes aren’t isolated to these controlled environments, Potuto said. Colleges can make attempts to stagger workouts and limit contact among players, but they’ll still be out in the world, interacting with friends and potentially spreading the virus. 

“They’re not going to be able to keep them in a bubble,” Potuto said.

Differing views on medical advice

It’s unclear why the other Power Five conferences — the Atlantic Coast (ACC), Big 12 and Southeastern (SEC) conferences  are still moving forward with their fall plans, said Walter Harrison, president emeritus of the University of Hartford, in Connecticut, and a former member of the NCAA’s top governing board.

Harrison said the presidents he has spoken with want to keep their campuses safe while also preserving the “identity” and social aspects of teams, noting that all will have first-year students who have yet to bond with their teammates. 

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a public statement Tuesday that he looked forward to learning more about the two conferences’ decisions but that he remained comfortable with his league’s approach. 

Knowledge of the virus is still evolving, but Harrison said he “couldn’t explain” why the other Power Five conferences would come to different conclusions about competing than the Big Ten and Pac-12. The Power Five conferences have a decentralized power structure and major autonomy, which makes decision-making more complex, Harrison said.

He gave an example: One college in the ACC is in Georgia, which recently set two consecutive single-day records for coronavirus-related deaths. But one Pac-12 college is in Colorado, which has a low number of confirmed coronavirus cases compared to many other states.

“You see the same inconsistency in whether schools are going to be entirely online, or hybrid or in-person,” Harrison said. 

The move by the Big Ten and Pac-12 to hold off on the season will undoubtedly pressure the rest of the Power Five to do the same, said Dave Ridpath, past president of the Drake Group, an ethics watchdog in college athletics.

Ridpath called on the other leagues to suspend competition, noting it’s possible to push football into the spring. But there are many outside influences in the decision, he acknowledged, including governors who want to see the season go on, as well as a robust student-athlete-led crusade

Pac-12 and Big Ten football players, however, fought against playing unless certain safety benchmarks were met.

“I don’t think it’s going to end well,” Ridpath said. “I hope I’m wrong. I’m not rooting for a player to get sick, I’m not rooting for a player to die … but this is just years of lawsuits that are just waiting to happen. I just don’t know why a president, or athletic director or coach, would want to take that risk.”

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