Not since the second week of March has intercollegiate athletics experienced such tumult.
July 8 and 9 were crammed with explosive news: Ohio State indefinitely suspended workouts because of positive coronavirus tests, Stanford eliminated 11 varsity sports, the Ivy League announced it would not play any fall sports in 2020, and the Big Ten said it will only play conference games.
And two of the most influential people in college sports — Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith — spoke with grave concern about the season being played at all.
“We may not have sports in the fall,” Warren said. “We may not have a college football season in the Big Ten.”
The Pacific-12 joined the Big Ten on Friday with a conference-only schedule, and the Atlantic Coach Conference is expected to be the next domino. Southeastern Conference athletic directors are reportedly having an in-person meeting Monday to discuss the 2020 season.
“At this time, our medical and scientific advisers have suggested we should move ahead slowly and with constant re-evaluation,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told the Associated Press. “We plan to continue to prepare for all available scenarios until we are informed that some are no longer viable.”
Unfortunately, for coaches, players, and fans, that day feels inevitable. A decision on whether the season can start on time is expected in late July. Schools are due to lose millions of dollars if the season isn’t played, which is why they are exhausting every possible avenue, including playing in the spring.
The biggest loser in college football is the Mid-American Conference. There were 11 games between Big Ten and MAC schools scheduled this year, totaling nearly $11 million in payments, a massive blow to MAC athletic departments at a time when programs are being cut and jobs are being slashed.
Bowling Green was set to make a total of $2.2 million from games at Ohio State and Illinois. Toledo was due $1.2 million from a Sept. 19 game at Michigan State. It’s possible the schools could come to a financial agreement.
The MAC, which received a loan between $150,000 and $350,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program, already eliminated the postseason tournament in eight sports. Football travel rosters were reduced from 76 to 70 players and home teams will no longer stay in hotels to save money.
Speculation about a spring season has elicited a visceral reaction, with one side proclaiming anything is better than nothing and the other side screaming about player safety because it jeopardizes the continuity of the 2021 season.
“I think going to the spring is an absolutely terrible idea,” Fox Sports analyst Joel Klatt said on Big Noon Kickoff. “I think it’s atrocious, and I think the leagues that do it are setting themselves up for real failure and player safety issues in the fall of 2021.”
Former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer agrees, cautioning that players who are on the field for 2,000 plays aren’t ready for contact during spring practice. If there’s a spring season, the turnaround for the fall season, not simply drills, would call into question player safety.
“You talk about student-athlete welfare — no chance. You’re not doing that,” Meyer said. “No. 1 is player safety and welfare.”
Another potential landmine is the NFL draft. It’s unlikely that the NFL would change its dates to compensate for a spring college football season, further complicating what a season would look like. It’s hard to imagine the sport’s biggest stars risking injury when they could instead be training for the draft.
“If I’m Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields or (Chris) Olave, some of these high, high draft picks, I’m not playing,” Meyer said. “I’m getting to go make some money and go earn a living and support my family.”
Important decisions remain for the Big Ten. How many games will be played? When will the season start? Will there be a conference championship game? There’s speculation that the Ohio State-Michigan game could move to September or October to ensure that it’s played. All options are on the table.
“The flexibility — I can’t say that enough — is significant,” Smith said.”If we’re able to play in September and something occurs in late September or early October, we can hit the pause button and provide a window of opportunity for student-athletes to not be put at risk. We can move games. If we’re scheduled to play somewhere and an outbreak occurs in that environment and school has to shut down, we can change games.”
Millions of fans in the Midwest would deal with a date change as long as they have a season to bicker about with neighbors.
“We’re gonna follow the lead of our medical experts,” Smith said. “Their advice has been great for us as we move through this process. So we’ll just have to wait and see how our different environments manage the pandemic and take their advice as we move forward.”