When the Ivy League called off its conference basketball tournaments in March, it became a tipping point for college sports in the emerging coronavirus outbreak. Two days later, March Madness was canceled.
So when the Ivy League announced Wednesday that it won’t play football or any other sports during the fall semester because of the pandemic, it led to this obvious question surrounding college athletics: Will major programs follow the Ivy’s lead again?
Probably not. At least not yet.
The Ivy League made its decision because it doesn’t think it can create an athletic environment that “meets our requirements for safety and acceptable levels of risk, consistent with the policies that each of our schools is adopting as part of its reopening plans this fall.
“We are entrusted to create and maintain an educational environment that is guided by health and safety considerations,” the league’s council of presidents said in a statement. “There can be no greater responsibility — and that is the basis for this difficult decision.”
If that responsibility was the only concern for big-time programs and conferences, more of them would bail on football this autumn, too. But it’s not.
Football at Clemson and LSU is not like football at Princeton, despite their shared Tigers nickname.
Athletics are a much smaller part of the campus experience at Harvard or Yale than at Florida or Florida State. Former UF assistant Buddy Teevens leads a Dartmouth football program that brought in $3.3 million in revenue in 2018, according to figures submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. The Gators counted $84.8 million in football revenue that year.
Columbia can skip a season without missing much. If SEC schools did so, jobs will be lost in what will already be a brutal fiscal year. The economic realities shouldn’t be the only factor major programs and leagues consider, but they can’t ignore them, either.
So instead of viewing the Ivy League’s decision as the beginning of the end for the upcoming season in the ACC or AAC, consider it the biggest warning sign yet: College football is in trouble.
If you still have any lingering hope for a normal-looking schedule this fall, start shifting your expectations. The odds are dropping with every COVID-19 spike and every outbreak that shuts down voluntary workouts (North Carolina became the latest Wednesday).
The best-case autumn scenarios involve major modifications. Scrap most, if not all, non-conference games to shorten the season. Push the start date back a few weeks. Add flex dates that could be used to reschedule a game when (not if) a COVID-19 cluster sidelines a team.
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It’s time to start thinking about more radical ideas, too, like splitting the season between the fall and spring, or moving it to spring entirely. The Ivy League, notably, didn’t rule out playing football in the spring. By then, we’ll know more about the novel coronavirus and — hopefully — have a vaccine and better treatments.
Playing that late has serious drawbacks and uncertainties. Top players, like Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, might prefer to sit out to focus on preparing for the NFL draft.
Cramming two seasons’ worth of games into one calendar year will take a toll on the bodies of unpaid amateurs. If a receiver blows out his knee in the opener, he won’t just miss one season; he’ll probably miss two. Then again, how many players will miss games or become seriously ill by playing in the middle of a pandemic?
Wednesday’s startling announcement is a reminder that there are no easy answers with college football in the pandemic. If they existed, administrators would have formed a task force to think about implementing them weeks ago. Instead, conference and university officials are sorting through which options are the least bad for the players, coaches and bottom lines before announcing their decision by early August.
For the Ivy League, the least bad option meant abandoning 150 years of tradition and becoming college football’s biggest domino to fall yet.
It might not be the only one.