Pulling the Plug on Fall Sports

Big Ten and Pac-12 Conferences call off 2020 season due to coronavirus concerns. Other Power 5 leagues seem disinclined to follow, leaving potential split in big-time football.

August 12, 2020
 

Chaos, division and confusion about the fate of fall sports at the country's top college football programs this week culminated in two influential Division I conferences postponing fall athletics for the remainder of the year Tuesday, both citing uncertainty about the short- and long-term health complications that the coronavirus could have on college athletes.

The Big Ten and Pac-12, which include powerhouse and profitable Division I football teams such as Ohio State and Pennsylvania State Universities and the Universities of Oregon and California, Berkeley, announced on Aug. 11 that fall sports competition will be on pause until at least 2021. The Pac-12 went one step further, barring all teams from competing until next year, which also means no basketball games, Larry Scott, the conference's commissioner, said during a live streamed news conference.

Three remaining "Power Five" conferences, the Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Southeastern Conferences, as of Tuesday still plan to move forward with modified football schedules. In a statement posted on Twitter, Greg Sankey, commissioner of the SEC, said he "remains comfortable" with the approach his conference is taking.

"I look forward to learning more about the factors that led the Big Ten and Pac-12 leadership to take these actions today," Sankey's statement said. "We will continue to further refine our policies and protocols for a safe return to sports as we monitor developments around COVID-19 in a continued effort to support, educate and care for our student-athletes every day."

The looming decision by officials in these leagues, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 choice to call off the football season, has become a battleground for COVID-19 politics, fueled by comments by President Trump and other politicians who encouraged college leaders to push forward.

In a letter to Big Ten presidents and chancellors on Aug. 10, U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican of Nebraska, urged the conference not to cancel fall sports and suggested playing football "is very likely safer" for athletes than not. He echoed messages from Trevor Lawrence, quarterback for the Clemson University Tigers, in the ACC, who said in a tweet over the weekend that without football, "players will be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely" and used the hashtag #WeWantToPlay, which quickly took off among those advocating for fall sports.

"Canceling the fall season would mean closing down socially distanced, structured programs for these athletes," Sasse wrote in his letter. "Young men will be pushed away from universities that are uniquely positioned to provide them with testing and health care."

University of Nebraska, Lincoln, which competes in the Big Ten, suggested it will seek to compete against other institutions in the fall, is "deeply disappointed" with the conference's decision to postpone fall sports.

"We have been and continue to be ready to play," said a joint statement from Chancellor Ronnie Green, Athletic Director Bill Moos, Head Football Coach Scott Frost and System President Ted Carter. "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 … We hope it may be possible for our student athletes to have the opportunity to compete."

The #WeWantToPlay comments seem to ignore the main reason college football players are at institutions in the first place: to attend classes -- whether in-person or online -- and work towards a degree, said Willis Jones, a professor of higher education at the University of South Florida who studies the educational experiences of college athletes. Clemson, for example, plans to bring students back to campus for in-person instruction on Sept. 21.

"Postsecondary education is presumably why we bring them on campus," said Jones, who is a research affiliate for the College Crisis Initiative, or C2i, a project at Davidson College that examines institutions' coronavirus decision-making.

"But statements like that promote that idea that people hold. If they're not on campus to play football, they're going to lose structure, lose their minds, when presumably they would still be able to benefit from being on campus."

Michael Schill, president of the University of Oregon, a member of the Pac-12, said during the conference's live stream that perhaps the postponement of fall sports would allow athletes to focus on their classwork during the upcoming semester. The perception that college athletes are not on campus for learning, they're there to play football, is a mindset that Pac-12 and Big Ten players have pushed back on in their statements about institutions' exploiting athletes and jeopardizing their health and safety amid the pandemic for revenue purposes.

Pac-12 football players even threatened to boycott the upcoming football season if specific, wide-ranging demands for athlete pay and an end to the exploitation of Black athletes were not met. Some athletes across the Power Five have decided to opt out of the fall season due to safety concerns ahead of any postponement, which the National Collegiate Athletic Association said is permitted without penalty in its most recent mandate for college athletics going into the fall semester.

Hunter Reynolds, a defensive back for the University of Michigan and a spokesman for College Athlete Unity, which advocates for athletes' to be represented in conference decision-making, said the intention of the movement was not to stop fall sports from happening. No athlete, on either side of the conversation, wants to see the season canceled, Reynolds said.

"I think everyone, in all the movements people have seen across social media in the last few weeks, no one's really saying they don't want to play," Reynolds said. "They're also not saying they want to play without the proper procedures in place. They're saying it in different ways."

But the health risks to athletes were just too high to move forward, Kevin Warren, the Big Ten Commissioner, said in a statement announcing the conference would postpone fall sports.

"It became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall," Warren said.

In the Pac-12 press conference, officials noted increasingly concerning research about a heart complication, myocarditis, that some athletes who previously had COVID-19 are at risk of developing due to inflammation and potential scarring of the heart muscle while battling symptoms of the virus. Dermot Phelan, director of sports cardiology at Atrium Health's Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute, said in a release that exercising with myocarditis intensifies the disease and increases the risk of cardiac arrest and sudden death.

"Even before COVID-19, myocarditis was a leading cause of death in young athletes. In the year of COVID, it's become a major concern," said Phelan, who co-wrote an article for Journal of the American Medical Association Cardiology on myocarditis risk for college athletes. "COVID seems to cause more heart damage than any virus we've had experience with."

The JAMA Cardiology article outlines return to play guidance for athletics officials to consider when working with athletes who have been infected with COVID-19, Phelan said in the release. The risk is higher for athletes who developed severe symptoms of the virus, rather than those who were asymptomatic, but all should be "cleared from a cardiac perspective" and limit intensity of exercise, he said. ESPN reported that at least a dozen athletes from Power Five institutions had been identified as having signs of myocarditis after recovering from COVID-19.

Reynolds, the Michigan football player, said that without football, he's uncomfortable with the idea of attending classes in person at the university, which is offering a mix of in-person and online classes. He said he believes if there can't be football, there shouldn't be in-person classes over all.

"I don't know where everyone else has been," Reynolds said. "Not being on the football team, they wouldn't have the same ability to be tested. I wouldn't feel comfortable in classes with people I don't know."

Jones, of C2i, said he doesn't see a correlation between colleges' athletic postponement decisions and overall campus decisions. "The decision to keep the campus open is larger than athletics," he said.

"The school would be able to make the argument that actually by moving forward without athletics, it continues a more consistent message around the reopening of campus," Jones said. "Sure, you're bringing students to campus, but there are a lot of really strict protocols in place in terms of social distancing and preventing large crowds. … I thought it would be really hard to argue the opposite -- that we can have football congregating and practicing, but we can't have Greek life doing the same. I actually think it might create more consistency in policy."

Chris Marsicano, founding director of C2i, said the initiative's research showed a trend among universities with major athletics programs, such as Clemson, deciding to push back the start of their fall semester, perhaps to offer officials more time to make an athletics decision.

"The big-time sports programs have a good amount of revenue, cash on hand if they need it," Marsicano said. "What they don't have is time. Any decision that gives the institution more time, is a decision that institutions are willing to make right now."

There are reports, though, that a canceled football season could result in a devastating result for colleges' athletics revenue and ability to continue non-revenue sports, which are typically all those excluding football and men's basketball. The University of Michigan athletic department could lose $56.6 million if the university cannot host any athletic events, mlive.com reported. Purdue University, another Big Ten member, announced a new fundraising campaign on Tuesday to "help the athletics department navigate the financial ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic."

Despite fall competition being postponed for the Big Ten, Pac-12 and less visible Division I conferences such as the Mountain West and Mid-American, there is still talk of athletes being able to continue to work out together, have team meetings, receive academic support and other resources while attending classes, so long as local public health guidance permits. Beth Goetz, athletics director at Ball State University, which is in the Mid-American league, said the department is confident it can move forward with workouts and possibly modified practices this fall.

"If there's a safe opportunity for them to work on their craft, our counselors and doctors are saying that's important to keep them doing," Goetz said.

Ethan Good, chair of the NCAA Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Council, which represents the 160,000 athletes in the division, said athlete activities such as workouts and getting together with teammates and coaches will be important to maintain for their mental health and identity. But unlike the spring, when winter and spring sport championships were axed due to the coronavirus, the fall will be more about athletes' "adjusting" to changes to their athletic structure rather than "enduring" a cancellation of campus life altogether, said Good, a former basketball player at Bowling Green University.

"Student athletes are student athletes. Some people call them athletes, some people call them just students, it depends on what you work with them on," Good said. "It's a part of their identity and a change that will be very different."

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