What the postponement of fall sports means for college athletics
The Big Ten made it official on Tuesday, ending days of speculation and contradicting reports with a decision to postpone the fall season. In a perfect world, that would be the end of all the questions and things would be cut and dried.
But it isn’t a perfect world, it’s the NCAA.
And that means this decision opens up a whole lot of questions that Michigan’s athletic department — and every other athletic department in the Big Ten — hoped it would never need to answer. Most of them don’t have answers yet, but we tried our best to lay them out, with what we know right now.
Why was this decision made?
Put simply, because America didn’t get COVID-19 under control. Back in March, when winter sports shut down, nobody thought fall sports would be cancelled. When Korea brought back professional baseball, Germany brought back soccer and the rest of Europe’s top leagues soon followed, case numbers in the US were steadily declining through May — things still looked good. Then things took a turn for the worse in July, when the effects of states relaxing lockdowns and social distancing took hold, and some refused to impose or continue mask mandates.
On top of that, this is still a virus we’re learning about as we go. It’s become almost conventional wisdom that it doesn’t affect kids badly, and certainly the mortality rate is low among the college age population. But recent studies have indicated increased risk of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. College administrators have seen those studies, and that played a role here.
Last week, the mother of Indiana offensive lineman Brady Feeney went viral with a Facebook post that detailed her son dealing with potential heart problems after contracting COVID-19. Incidents like that one give colleges pause, both from a health and a liability perspective. By punting to the spring, the Big Ten is giving medical experts more time to develop a treatment and to understand exactly what the lasting effects of COVID-19 are. It’s also giving the country more time to get its act together and start putting up numbers in line with what, for example, the European Union is dealing with instead of the tens of thousands of cases America has every day.
What are the chances a spring season actually happens?
Nobody knows. Anybody who says they do is lying.
If the reaction from coaches, players and politicians — including the President — right now is any indication, it will take a lot of political will to completely cancel the season. The financial ramifications would be massive, though athletic departments are already dealing with major hits from the NCAA Tournament cancellation. But the bottom line is, there needs to be confidence that a season can happen safely.
As many have pointed out, you can’t bubble college athletes. They’re unpaid student-athletes, a distinction the NCAA would very much like to keep intact. Colleges across the country, including Michigan, are bringing students back in a matter of weeks. Some have already done so. If those students all get sent home by the end of October because of outbreaks, are we really going to have a football season in the spring?
Without major changes with regard to a vaccine or therapy for COVID-19 or a dramatic decline in case numbers, it’s hard to see a coherent argument for doing that.
On the other hand, if the SEC and Big 12 go ahead and have a full season without a disaster happening, it’s hard to see why the Big Ten wouldn’t want to follow suit.
If nothing else, the Big Ten bought itself valuable time by postponing its schedule.
What does this mean for winter sports?
Unlike football, soccer and field hockey, most winter sports are indoors — where the virus spreads easier. Smaller rosters for sports like basketball could make things more navigable than, say, football, but money from football pays for nearly every other sport. So without that money guaranteed, would administrators want to hold, say, a women’s gymnastics season with the athletic department facing a major revenue loss already? It’s unclear right now.
The only rule the Big Ten, and the NCAA at large, has seemed to adhere to since the pandemic hit is that it won’t make a decision until it needs to make a decision. And even then, it might find a way not to make a decision.
All this is to say, speculating about winter sports right now is a fool’s errand.
Are athletic scholarships still being honored?
There’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t be. Unlike, for example, a professional contract that might have an incentive for games played or be contingent on appearing in games, athletic scholarships aren’t dependent on games happening. Moreover, pulling them would only add to what’s already been a public relations nightmare. Ohio State quickly released a statement that all athletes will remain on scholarship, other schools will follow its lead.
What will the financial impact be for Michigan’s athletic department?
Much of that depends on whether there will actually be a spring football season or not.
If that happens, it means lots of TV money. It might even mean some fans in the stands if things get better in a drastic and unrealistic way.
If that doesn’t happen, the revenue shortfall could easily reach nine figures. Michigan has already budgeted $61 million less than last year and athletic director Warde Manuel wrote in an open letter last week that number “could easily double if the decision is made not to play any sports.” At Michigan State, athletic director Bill Beekman said Monday that no football might result in an $80-85 million revenue loss.
Michigan likely has the financial means to avoid cutting programs, but this isn’t the case for everyone (nor is it a stone-cold guarantee for Michigan). Regardless, the impact will be far-reaching, whether there’s ultimately a season or not.
What will the football program now?
As of now, Michigan has suspended athletic activities, including team practices, until further notice. The release announcing so, however, noted that the University “will decide on organized team and voluntary student-athlete activities as soon as information becomes available.” That leaves the door open for some kind of training.
It’s hard to see things shutting down altogether the same way they did in the spring. As Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh noted in his statement Monday, the football team has worked out without creating an outbreak. Students are still coming to campus. There’s not much reason not to train.
As those advocating for a season have noted, football (and other sports) give players structure. It forces them to follow social distancing protocols. A season could still happen in the spring, so might as well be ready for that possibility.
What happens with eligibility?
It’s completely unclear right now. The Big Ten is in uncharted territory. There’s no rules to govern whether an early enrollee is allowed to play a spring season, because there’s never been a spring season. There’s no rules to govern whether players will retain eligibility in a cancelled season because that’s never happened either.
In the spring, the NCAA allowed athletes to retain eligibility but this isn’t necessarily the same. This wasn’t a uniform NCAA decision and some conferences may play in the fall. Moreover, it’s unclear whether the Big Ten will be able to play in the spring or not.
What happens with the NFL Draft?
Again, nobody knows. The NFL can push its draft date back as far as June 2, but whether it will is another story. Whether draft-eligible players will want to risk injury in a spring season even if the draft gets moved back is another matter altogether. That will likely depend on each individual player.
How do the players feel about this?
With the caveat that Michigan’s football team shouldn’t be treated as a single entity, a vocal contingent of players publicly stated on Monday that they wanted to play..
A number of players tweeted out “#WeWantToPlay” on Monday and were joined by Harbaugh, who sent a statement outlining the reasons he believed a fall season should happen. All of them had to do with low positive test numbers and strong adherence to protocols within Michigan’s program.
But Michigan’s football program isn’t reflective of every other football program in the Big Ten. Michigan State and Rutgers both had to quarantine after positive tests. Elsewhere at Michigan, four teams had to pause practices due to positive tests. Even if 80 percent of players buy into social distancing, a few people can ruin it for everyone.
Michigan football seemed to do things right. But that alone isn’t enough.