The idea of playing college sports this fall seemed dubious all along, like setting up a massive, heavy Jenga tower of good intentions and questionable hopes.
Now, it is wavering with each news item, and this week is among the most seismic in danger, having a season.
The Ivy League stopped sports until at least 1 January. Ohio and North Carolina had sufficient positive cases of coronavirus among the few athletes on campus who had suspended summer exercises. And the Big Ten Conference soberly announced that most of its autumn sports, including football, would play only league games – if they did. The Pac-12 Conference did the same Friday, announcing later that its commissioner had tested positive.
One by one, the pieces are removed. The tower rocks. When will the whole structure collapse?
“Nobody wants to be the first, but when someone is, then it is good that someone is next” Buddy Teevens, longtime football coach in Dartmouth, said about the Ivy League.
The Big Ten, the richest NCAA conference, protected its bets the day after the Ivy League announcement comparing its fall plans. The Atlantic Coast Conference, another of the Power Five leagues, said Friday that decide your autumn sports seasons by the end of the month. Teevens, formerly a Stanford and Tulane coach, admitted that reality was seeping in, slowly flooding hope.
“It’s been like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny,” said Teevens. “You kind of knew they didn’t exist and, finally, they told you.”
It was harder to restart the sport collegially than professionally, with its unique breadth of complicated logistics and sensitive issues – billions of dollars in revenue backed by the backs of tens of thousands of amateur athletes, spread across hundreds of campuses and dozens of conferences spread out all over the nation.
Athletics play a huge role in the nightmare faced by American universities. Schools everywhere are amazing towards fall, not knowing how to do the most basic things, like taking classes. It is a matter of life, death and budget.
Many are jury plans to educate online, some entirely. Budgets are in tatters. Students are in limbo. Teachers are divided over the poor options of teaching personally during a pandemic and educating through computer screens. Support workers and others linked to campuses are waiting, but every day it seems to make the vision more obscure.
The colleges and cities that support and depend on them are microcosms of the nation’s anxiety and uncertainty. They face a grudge between health and the economy. The safest option is to keep the campuses closed. This can spell economic devastation for colleges and their communities. Is there a middle ground?
Now throw athletics into the cauldron. Unlike most professional sports leagues, many of which are already struggling to engage in self-described and monitored bubbles without making people sick, there is no way to separate college sports from college environments or society in general.
Even small outbreaks could spread like forest fires.
So far, more than 3.1 million Americans have been diagnosed with Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and 133,000 have died. On Wednesday, the day the Ivy League canceled autumn sports, nearly 60,000 new cases were recorded in the United States, a new record.
Some of them were college athletes. As of Wednesday, at least 426 had tested positive for coronavirus among about 50 Division I programs, but the number of cases is likely to be much higher. About half of American universities did not respond to requests for test results from The New York Times or refused to provide numbers under the auspices of protecting student-athlete privacy.
Ohio, suspending its exercise programs out of season this week, did not reveal how many students had positive results. He said only that the shutdown affected seven sports, including football.
These news accelerate as the autumn sports calendar approaches. And if reasonable people at some of the world’s great universities hadn’t seriously considered this issue before, now they are:
Why are we doing this?
The flip answer rarely said out loud: Money. Under the umbrella of the NCAA athletics college is a $ 18 billion company, with schools generating about $ 10 billion in revenue. And football is the main moneymaker, especially in places like Ohio, where athletics budget exceeds US $ 200 million per year.
“I don’t want to reject reasons,” University of Washington epidemiologist Steve Mooney said of the world of sports, “but I don’t know if they have my best interests in mind.”
The ethical side of all this can give philosophy classes in college, when and how they call, a lot to consider.
Given budget constraints and coronavirus testing problems, should universities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a season to routinely test players, coaches and staff?
“Is it a good use of our resources?” said Dawn Comstock, a sports epidemiologist at the Colorado School of Public Health.
Some schools have asked student-athletes to sign exemptions to recognize the risk of participating during a pandemic. In a letter to the NCAA, a pair of senators called them “legally dubious” and “morally disgusting”.
To paraphrase the character of Jeff Goldblum in “Jurassic Park”, questioning the recreation of dinosaurs: college sports have been so concerned about whether or not to return in the fall that they didn’t stop to think about whether they should.
Join the Ivy League, with its high educational standards and modest athletic ambitions (and significantly less reliance on sports revenue compared to Power Five conferences). It was the first Division I conference to close in the spring. He was the first to reject the return in the fall.
“I think other conferences across the country will follow,” said Columbia athletic director Peter Pilling.
Not without a fight. The more money at stake, the more contortions universities can make to make sport happen.
That’s why much of the scrutiny involves football. With its long lists and sweat-swapping action as a contact sport, football games can seem like a bad idea when fighting a contagious virus.
But football is the dairy cow that feeds most other sports programs. Missing just one season – and the television revenue it generates, which can amount to tens of millions of dollars on major shows – can be devastating for non-revenue sports, many of which routinely fight for their existence.
The state of Ohio, for example, has 36 other sports, mainly financed by football. Earlier this week, rich and powerful Stanford cut 11 sports, blaming cascading budgets.
Contingency plans are being made for the football season. It is certain, at this point, that there may be no fans in the stands. Seasons can be reduced in scope or pushed into spring, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott admitted earlier this month. Switching from Big Ten to conference-only games is half a step towards cancellation.
The hope is to save something. But even if the seasons start, the outbreaks can end them suddenly, just as they do in basketball and spring sports tournaments.
The NCAA, which gave Americans an early warning when they canceled their basketball tournaments last March, may not react with such enthusiasm this time.
“As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to impact college sports at the national level, the NCAA supports its members as they make important decisions based on their specific circumstances and the best interests of the health and well-being of college athletes,” said in a statement. On thursday.
But could the Pac-12 shutter while the Big Ten played? Or will the decision of a major conference start the domino chain?
Most expect answers by the end of July.
“I don’t like current trends, with the numbers and increases in viruses that you see across the country,” Tom Wistrcill, commissioner at the Big Sky Conference, told Bozeman (Mont.) Daily Chronicle. He estimated the chances of playing autumn sports at 50 to 50.
Such an empty analysis seemed unlikely in March. Leagues like the NBA and Major League Baseball, along with most Americans, considered the virus a fleeting storm to wait.
Sport did its part. They took shelter in place. No one can blame the sports world for the wide-ranging outbreak or the continuous outbreaks during the summer. Not yet.
Billy Witz and Lauryn Higgins contributed reporting.