Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 9, 2020

Who Will Follow The Ivy League’s Lead?

Is the trickle about to become a flood? The first announcements of colleges canceling fall sports, meaning above all else football, were from little schools that play in the lower levels of the NCAA. Institutions like Division III schools Bowdoin, Williams, and Grinnell, all colleges that don’t offer athletic scholarships. Then Morehouse, a historically black college which plays in Division II, canceled its football season. That announcement was on the heels of the Patriot League, with its member schools scattered mostly up and down the I-95 corridor from Boston to Washington, DC, deciding to delay the start of fall sports until the end of September and bar teams from traveling to games by air. Patriot League football squads compete at the Football Championship Subdivision level of the NCAA’s Division I, just one step below the teams that millions tune in to watch every Saturday from late summer until the confetti flies at the end of the College Football National Championship game in January.

Meanwhile football players for many of those teams at the top of the collegiate athletics food chain were returning to campuses and participating in workouts for an already-delayed spring practice. But as they did so schools began reporting alarming numbers of positive coronavirus tests. At Clemson fully one-third of the team tested positive, though as a member of a Power 5 conference and with four trips to the title game in the last five years, the Tigers and coach Dabo Swinney didn’t let that interrupt preparations for the coming season. Infected players were sent into quarantine for ten days, but practices continued for the rest of the roster. Then this week other football powers found it impossible to ignore such bad numbers. On Wednesday UNC shut down its team practice, and shortly thereafter Ohio State suspended workouts, not just for the football squad but for all sports.

The ultimate catalyst for more drastic action may be a decidedly unlikely one. The Ivy League, which issues no athletic scholarship, bars its football teams from playing in bowl games, and was the last Division I conference to adopt a season-ending basketball tournament, canceled all fall sports. Given the vastly less important role of athletics on Ivy campuses as compared to the Power 5 conferences, in terms of both money and prestige, one might expect that decision to be scarcely noticed in Tuscaloosa or Columbus or Baton Rouge. Certainly, the immediate reactions from commissioners of the big conferences, while not dismissive, emphasized that their own decision-making processes were ongoing. Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey, for example, said in an interview on ESPN Radio, “I don’t think the (Ivy League’s) announcement is any inflection point for decision making.”

But Sankey went on to acknowledge that “when you look at what is happening, those are the real inflection points for us. I want to be optimistic, but the reality is publicly we have to discipline ourselves to remain healthy as a culture. And that relates to some of the behaviors we’ve seen that have caused the spread to accelerate. I’ve been optimistic, but I’m prepared that optimism is not reality.”

Sankey and his fellow commissioners, along with presidents and athletic directors at scores of Division I schools, are confronting twin realities. The first is an ongoing surge in coronavirus cases across a broad swath of the country, and the second is the alarmingly high percentage of new cases among young people whose presumed careless behavior was the object of Sankey’s comment. Both bode ill for a quick return of college sports.

The Ivy League has already been the unlikely leader of American sports once before during the pandemic. On March 10, league executive director Robin Harris announced the cancelation of the Ivy’s basketball tournaments for both men’s and women’s teams. At the time Harris was accused of timidity and overreacting, but her announcement quickly proved prescient. One day later the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic and the NBA suspended play. In the next twenty-four hours all other major professional leagues followed suit, and the criticism of the Ivy League became moot with the shelving of March Madness.

There won’t be a similar rush to follow the Ivy League’s example this time. The college football season is still weeks away, so athletic directors still have a little time. Also, back in March, most folks believed that the interruption of the sports calendar would only last a few weeks. Now everyone knows better. Plus football, and to a lesser extent basketball, are the sports that carry all other aspects of the athletic program at many schools. Wiping out an entire football season will impact a long list of other teams on campuses across the country.

Still colleges can’t simply cite the economic impact as reason enough to send teams out onto the gridiron. Doing so will only remind fans that the players they cheer for every Saturday don’t share in the financial windfall football produces for those Power 5 schools, even as in a season played during a pandemic they would put their health on the line to an extent far beyond the usual risks of the brutal contact sport.

It’s a perilous choice, one that many who are facing it will be loath to make. This week’s decision by the Ivy League doesn’t mean the dam has burst, but it reminds us the levee safeguarding the return of sports may yet prove to be hopelessly porous. Thursday the Big 10 announced a conference-only schedule for this fall, eliminating marquee football matchups like Michigan versus Washington in September and Wisconsin versus Notre Dame at Lambeau Field in October. That came after the ACC pushed back the start of fall sports, and Stanford notified athletes in eleven different disciplines that their teams were being eliminated. It’s not yet a flood, but the water is rising.

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