With the window of opportunity for college football nearly closed, the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences dealt the multi-billion-dollar sport a major blow Tuesday by calling off their fall sports seasons.
Football, officials said, will hopefully be played again in the spring. It cannot be contested on the usual fall Saturdays due to the continuing rates of COVID-19 infection across the U.S., they determined. They no doubt also are mindful of the massive liabilities faced by universities and college sports entities, especially given that the long-term health risks to those affected by coronavirus are unknown.
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“All of the Pac-12 presidents and chancellors understand the importance of this decision, and the disappointment it will create for our student-athletes, the coaches, support staff and all of our fans,” said Michael H. Schill, president of the University of Oregon. “Ultimately, our decision was guided by science and a deep commitment to the health and welfare of student-athletes. We certainly hope that the Pac-12 will be able to return to competition in the New Year.”
The Mid-Atlantic and Mountain West conferences yanked fall sports in recent days, making Tuesday’s calls by bigger college entities less of a surprise. While Big Ten coaches like Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh had argued in favor of persevering in the fall, no Pac-12 coaches or athletic officials have mounted that argument given the daunting virus trends on the West Coast.
The U.S. is the hardest-hit country in the world by COVID-19, with more than 5 million confirmed cases and 163,000 deaths, according to the latest figures from researchers at Johns Hopkins. California and Arizona are seeing some of the biggest surges.
As momentum to put a pin in the season built last weekend, a group of star players from the “Power 5” conferences pushed back. Backed by supporters including President Donald Trump, they used the hashtag #WeWantToPlay to call for a return to the field but with proper safety precautions. Unlike basketball, soccer or hockey, football is not using a “bubble system,” meaning players would continue to mix with general campus populations. Players are also unpaid. When schools across the country reopened for workouts this summer, many of them had several dozen players test positive for COVID-19.
The Southeastern Conference remains a major holdout and the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12 have also not made final decisions, with the season start a little more than three weeks away. It is also possible that some of the 14 Big Ten schools like Nebraska could play games outside the conference. Reports in recent days have raised the possibility of the SEC becoming a “super-conference” in 2020, attracting various programs from around the country, with a bespoke TV schedule.
Disney, Fox and ViacomCBS are among the media companies most likely to suffer from the college game’s absence, though the NFL is expected to spread out into Friday nights and Saturdays. The pros will have the sports landscape to themselves after the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball wrap their seasons by the end of October. Because of the upside-down nature of 2020, NBA officials have floated the possibility of delaying their next season, which traditionally starts in October and wraps in June, until January or even February.
“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.
“We know how significant the student-athlete experience can be in shaping the future of the talented young women and men who compete in the Big Ten Conference. Although that knowledge made this a painstaking decision, it did not make it difficult. While I know our decision today will be disappointing in many ways for our thousands of student-athletes and their families, I am heartened and inspired by their resilience, their insightful and discerning thoughts, and their participation through our conversations to this point. Everyone associated with the Big Ten Conference and its member institutions is committed to getting everyone back to competition as soon as it is safe to do so.”
Because football brings in such a dominant share of revenue, the impact of not having a season will affect university coffers as well as the athletic operations across the board. Smaller, “non-revenue” teams are likely to be completely disbanded, as has already started to happen at some schools.
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