College football must face the prospect of a rarely observed catastrophe ahead of the 2020 season: that there might not be a season at all.
The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in the U.S. has forced college football decision-makers into a previously unthinkable choice: Whether to play this fall, or postpone the season. Those looming choices have reached a fever pitch in recent days, with both the Mountain West and Mid-American conferences announcing they would cancel their respective fall seasons in favor of a spring campaign.
The spotlight now rests on the biggest of college football’s power brokers: the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, though they are hardly the only conferences that have difficult choices to make regarding the 2020 season.
It’s a complex situation, comprising several moving parts and differing opinions not just among the conferences, but also from team to team and individual to individual. With that, Sporting News breaks down the ever-evolving situation: How college football has reached the brink of cancellation, the potential ramifications for players, spring football and more.
Why are decisions about the 2020 college football season coming now?
Two Power 5 conferences — the Big Ten and Pac-12 — will reportedly vote as early as Tuesday on whether to play this fall. The rush to put the issue to a vote is in response to the Mid-American Conference’s Saturday decision, which set the precedent for an FBS conference to cancel its fall season.
Per Brett McMurphy of Stadium, MAC presidents convened on Thursday not to vote on whether a 2020 fall season would take place, but to finalize the conference’s scheduling format. Those plans changed when Northern Illinois president Lisa Freeman, a former research scientist, informed her fellow presidents that NIU would not participate in college football in the fall.
“The league didn’t like the look of NIU going out on their own and not playing,” a source told McMurphy. Thus, the vote to cancel the fall season.
Power 5 commissioners held an “emergency meeting” on Sunday, per ESPN. The report, citing sources, claimed the majority of the Big Ten’s presidents, following their own meeting on Saturday, were ready to postpone the season; the conference did not vote at the time, though reports emerged that commissioner Kevin Warren preferred a spring football season. The conference merely released a mandate that essentially kept teams from proceeding to full-pad practices.
The Big Ten reportedly used the Sunday commissioners’ meeting to gauge the other conferences’ thoughts and ask if they would follow their lead to cancel the season. Should Big Ten presidents vote to cancel the fall season, however, it likely won’t be a unanimous choice.
Dan Patrick reported on Monday that Iowa and Nebraska voted to maintain the fall season (a Big Ten spokesman later said the conference has made no decision on the season). Even so, several high-profile Big Ten coaches, including Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State’s Ryan Day, have publicly expressed a desire to play football in the fall. Nebraska’s Scott Frost even said the institution could look at “other options” to play if the Big Ten canceled its season.
The SEC and ACC are reportedly aligned in their desire to play in the fall: SEC commissioner Greg Sankey preached a wait-and-see approach on Monday while CBS Sports, citing a high-ranking ACC official, reported the conference “absolutely” plans to play this fall.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby told the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman on Sunday that the conference has not yet made a decision regarding the 2020 season.
Will players’ eligibility extend if the season is canceled or they opt out?
The NCAA on Wednesday mandated that, among its various divisions, “all student-athletes must be allowed to opt out of participation due to concerns about contracting COVID-19. If a college athlete chooses to opt out, that individual’s athletics scholarship commitment must be honored by the college or university.”
The NCAA also directed its divisions to “determine no later than Aug. 14 the eligibility accommodations that must be made for student-athletes who opt out of participating this fall or for those whose seasons are canceled or cut short due to COVID-19.” While the language of the mandate could technically allow institutions to consider a year of eligibility extinguished, the NCAA has already set a precedent for preserving athletes’ eligibility.
That came on March 30, roughly two weeks after the organization canceled spring sports for the 2019-20 athletic year. Per an NCAA release, the group announced its Division I council “voted to allow schools to provide spring-sport student-athletes an additional season of competition and an extension of their period of eligibility.”
It’s unlikely the NCAA wouldn’t extend those same rights to fall sport athletes in the case of a canceled season. That said, if for some reason it did refuse to do so, it could potentially open itself up to myriad lawsuits from said athletes, an outcome the NCAA would presumably like to avoid.
Can college football be played safely?
The issue of playing college football this season ultimately comes down to this.
While the NHL and NBA have proven that competition can take place without spreading COVID-19, it’s important to note those leagues are currently taking place in bubble atmospheres: the NHL in Edmonton and Toronto, the NBA in Orlando.
But MLB — which, like college football, features squads traveling to and from stadiums across state and county lines — has experienced outbreaks among its teams. That includes the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins, which have forced the postponement of several games and series.
While the travel requirements won’t be nearly as extensive for college football as it is in MLB, one potential issue for the former is proximity of players to fellow college students on campus. While the NCAA can mandate several steps be taken to ensure players’ safety (it has) the organization has no such governance over non-student-athletes, who likely will not be held to the same stringent policies.
Moreover, college football has already seen significant coronavirus outbreaks among several FBS programs, including Clemson, West Virginia and Rutgers, among others.
Yet many players and coaches have suggested that football players would be safer with the football team than if they were to remain at home: an opinion held by Harbaugh, Frost, Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. Several athletes among Ohio State’s football and basketball teams shared a statement lauding the safety infrastructure of the university’s return to play model.
Ultimately, the most sensible course of action may be to wait as long as possible to make an informed decision. That, at least, is the public stance by SEC commissioner Greg Sankey:
Timeline of 2020 college football decisions
Below is a timeline of final decisions from FBS conferences and teams on whether football will be played football this fall.
What would a spring college football season look like?
For many teams across the country, the prospect of a spring season is the only way college football will be played in the 2020-21 athletic year. But even that prospect creates several significant logistical hurdles, including …
If college football does resume in the spring semester, the usual roster spots freed up by graduating seniors, transfers and early NFL Draft entrants could still be occupied by those players. That raises questions of whether incoming transfers and early enrollees would have a right to play in that season, or if they would have to wait till 2021-22.
The growing list of NFL prospects opting out of the 2020 season presents an unavoidable truth about college football in 2020: It will be without some of college football’s greatest stars, including such players as Purdue’s Rondale Moore, Miami’s Gregory Rousseau and Penn State’s Micah Parsons.
It remains unlikely that the NFL will postpone its combine or draft, forcing NFL prospects into an uncomfortable choice: Play one final collegiate season, or focus entirely on preparing for a jump to the pros?
Length of season
Football is an exceptionally grueling sport, even with its relatively short season. Even without nonconference games, would a 10- or 11-game regular season schedule, coupled with potential bowls and Playoff berths, leave enough time for players to recuperate for another season in 2021? The same question could be asked in relation to spring football practices.
Why doesn’t the NCAA mandate whether college football can be played?
Because the NCAA does not control the College Football Playoff or bowl system — the former of which is used to determine the national champion at college football’s highest level.
Even if the NCAA did have control of the FBS and its postseason system, chances are the organization would have placed the onus of a decision on presidents, commissioners and athletic directors. That is, essentially, what it did with the FCS down through Divisions II and III.
The NCAA Board of Governors on Wednesday mandated that its divisions “determine (the) status of fall championships positions no later than Aug. 21.” That same day, both the Division II and Division III presidents councils announced the outright cancellation of their respective fall sports, adding that a move to the spring football would not be possible in either division.
The 13 FCS conferences, meanwhile, have not unanimously decided to cancel the fall season. That said, an overwhelming majority (nine of 13) have elected to postpone their season until the spring.
What is the We Want To Play movement?
There have been several player-driven movements related to college football and COVID-19, none of which is more prevalent than the #WeWantToPlay movement.
#WeWantToPlay is a social media campaign shared by several college football players across the Power 5 that lists several goals in a united front — including the desire to create a college football players association. The campaign also includes the Pac-12 players’ #WeAreUnited movement.
The social media campaign came together on Sunday when several players from across the Power 5 met in a Zoom meeting to come up with a unified message; the meeting consisted of Lawrence; Ohio State’s Justin Fields; Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard; Alabama’s back Najee Harris; Oregon’s Penei Sewell, Johnny Johnson III, Jevon Holland and Kayvon Thibodeaux; Utah’s Nick Ford; Washington State’s Dallas Hobbs; and Michigan’s Hunter Reynolds.
Several players began sharing the graphic on Sunday to kickstart the campaign.
When was the last time college football was canceled?
The sport of college football has only been canceled twice: Once during the 1918 season, and again in 1943.
The first of those cancellations occurred due to the presence of influenza — colloquially called Spanish flu — in the country, coupled with the winding down of World War I. That resulted in the cancellation of 18 football teams’ seasons, per The Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier. Many of the teams who were able to field players could not begin competition until October, nor could they complete full schedules. Michigan and Pittsburgh were both considered national champions by major selectors of the time.
The second college football cancellation came in 1943, due to World War II. That season, 22 college football teams were unable to play, including such historic powers as Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Stanford, Oregon Boston and Michigan State. Notre Dame was declared national champion by the Associated Press.
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