clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Sports in the age of COVID-19: What Now?

The path to fall sports is still covered in uncertainty, as the pandemic has shaken the core of the NCAA model.

Rynearson sits empty during a winter day.
Kenneth Bailey

The first reported coronavirus case in the United States was reported in Washington state on January 21, 2020.

That case, a man on travel from Wuhan, China, was treated with an anti-viral medicine and was released from the hospital two weeks later. On February 19, a resident of a senior home was diagnosed with it. Five days later, another man was diagnosed with it. From there, it spread like wildfire. Within two weeks, there were over 1,000 cases. Within two more weeks after that, there were close to 9,000 in the state of Washington alone.

On March 1, the first case was reported in New York. Within 3 weeks, there were over 10,000 cases. By the end of March there were 75,000 cases. It was pretty clear, there was a highly contagious disease on our hands.

The tipping point was March 11, when within hours, Tom Hanks announced he was diagnosed with the disease and a regular-season NBA game between Utah and Oklahoma City was cancelled prior to tip-off once it was revealed a player (later identified to be Rudy Gobert) tested positive.

Form there, every major sports league shut down. The NCAA cancelled the remaining sports seasons, including their crown jewel, the March Madness tournament. College campuses closed their doors and sent their students home. Federal and state governments issued stay-at-home orders, and businesses had to change how they operated in order to stop the spread.

Now, it’s approaching the second week of May, and still, the light at the end of the tunnel remains elusive.

So two months into a national quarantine, and with severe impacts already felt across the sporting world at all levels, the question must be asked: what does it all mean?

Michigan’s new Covid-19 cases as of this writing.
Kenneth Bailey with data from the Michigan Government Website.

The good news is that many of these shutdowns have slowed the spread of the virus (as evidenced by the attached chart,) which means that these lockdowns are serving their purpose.

The bad news is that there still isn’t a vaccine, and in people’s eagerness for a return to life as normal, a secondary outbreak could force us once again to consider the possibility of starting the process all over again.

Colleges have already started to make their decisions on whether or not to allow students back on campus this upcoming academic year, and there doesn’t seem to be a concensus on what the proper method is.

This is bad news for conferences, who have to juggle the intentions their member schools, follow federal and state guidelines, and fulfill their obligations to sponsors.

The uncertainty is extremely apparent from the top down; NCAA President Mark Emmert said he didn’t see the possibility of playing sports the 2020-21 academic year before walking it back and leaving it up to the individual conferences and colleges.

Either way you look at it, there is the strong possibility that college football may not return in the fall.

Most of that pessimism can be reflected in the ideas surrounding how to bring the sport back in the first place.

The most ludicrous proposal that I’ve heard is that they want to delay the start of the season until February of 2021. I say that is ludicrous because many of the teams in the north would either be forced to play in southern stadiums (like baseball) or would play in local domed stadiums. That might work for Michigan and Eastern Michigan but I don’t see that working out well for any of the other MAC schools.

Another potential proposal is to play the games in empty stadium. This might work for the fans and social distancing but it won’t work so well for the players and coaches, as the routines will be hopelessly interrupted and they’ll likely be at risk of constant exposure. Even with the promise of constant monitoring and testing, this option is not extremely feasible unless there’s major investment on the parts of the schools, NCAA and the government.

Another proposal would be to drop the non-conference part of the schedule and start with conference games in October. This is another doable option except for the Group Five schools losing out on their pay days from visiting Power Five schools. If I recall, Eastern Michigan had two pay day games next season. That would mean losing approximately $1.5 million towards the athletic budget. I’m pretty sure the other schools in the MAC are in the same boat and couldn’t afford to lose that money. This is a no-go, as far as I’m concerned.

The most likely scenario would still hinge upon schools returning to campus: social distancing inside the stadiums and restictions upon attendence. The main problem I see there is the fans milling around in the concourses and rest rooms as it is more difficult to practice social distancing in those places. It’s not anything close to normal, and it’s hard to see, right now, how it’s possible.

Even if the games come completely back, how long will it be before people feel comfortable in large crowds of strangers? Given the history behind attendence numbers in recent years, we could see historically low numbers, as fans could be more firm in staying home than ever before.

So whatever the outcome, I don’t think things are going to look the same.

Crowds like this may be a thing of the past.
Kenneth Bailey

When I was writing this article originally, I was only thinking about the impact on football as the basketball season seemed far enough in the future that it wouldn’t be impacted.

Earlier this week, it was announced that the Mid-American Conference would have a 20-game conference season with eight teams going to the championship and campus round games eliminated. While those home games give some schools a little more revenue, I don’t think those games serve much purpose in the bigger scheme.

It was also announced that some of the other sports would be eliminating their conference championships, making the regular season cahmpion the postseason representative.

As the discussion about bringing the sport back in any form continues to go on ad nauseum, we find ourselves losing track of the long-term implications of what the pandemic has already done to the current structure of not only collegiate sports, but college in general.

Several MAC member schools have already started to enforce austerity measures to ensure they can remain in the black as revenue decreases with the loss of ticket sales, buy game redemptions and the like. The University of Akron is looking at eliminating five of their colleges, and has already cut 23 percent of their atheltic budget, an already-known crisis accelerated by the pandemic. (Granted, some of that may be a case of eliminating redundancies and some of the staff for those colleges but it wouldn’t look good to trim academic budgets and leave athletics alone.)

It is the opinion of this author that if the campuses are still not open, then sports should remain closed. What makes the student-athletes different from the students? That they can play a sport better than the average 18-21 year old?

If it is decided the student-athletes can return to campus while other students are encouraged to stay home, some of the more enterprising student-athletes might decide to challenge the whole idea of amateurism.

And really, who could blame them?