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Amid COVID-19 uncertainty, the college sports world scrambles for meaning— and money

The more answers we get, the more questions arise.

The MAC surrenders to certain realities.
Kenneth Bailey

The Mid American Conference announced that it was going to postpone its fall athletics season last week, amidst speculation of a reduced schedule. Quickly thereafter, the MAC was followed by the Mountain West, Big 10 and PAC-12.

As of this writing, the rest of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conferences have announced that they are having their fall seasons as normal or with a reduced schedule.

So what does that mean? Number one, the virus has not left us. There are still flare ups across the country. Shortly after opening up, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Michigan State University all announced they are going to online learning due to major flare-ups on campus. Number two, while there aren’t many deaths for people under 60, we are still unaware of the consequences and lingering effects of COVID-19. Multiple reports have indicated that heart issues are a real factor in the shutdown decision, with the Big XII using heart stress tests in their quarantine protocols. Number three, it means a never-ending change of schedule, as schools continue to play musical chairs in regards to out-of-conference scheduling.

How does all of this impact football?

Well, it seems like it is a done deal for the MAC. And honestly, with the number of member schools shifting to strictly online learning, I don’t understand how a conference could reach any other conclusion. Simply put, the decision behind cutting face-to-face learning paints what the attitude should be towards the play of high-contact sport.

The NCAA hasn’t been giving much guidance to the schools and that is leaving us with the situation we have now. I think that approach is going to backfire in the long run, as some folks are able to make the argument that they are more athlete than student and entitled to compensation (the smaller cost) and some sort of workmen’s comp (the larger cost) should they get injured.

But if history is any indication, the NCAA will continue to let the conferences run around and figure it out on their own. How can the NCAA continue to proclaim the pureness of amateurism in college sports if they feel that these student-athletes would be perfectly safe on campus while their fellow peer students are not? The answer is simple: letting the conferences take the heat for their actions, while hiding behind the concept of protecting and promoting the “student-athletes,” allows them the leeway to never make a strong decision.

One only needs to look at the MAC’s decision to cancel—and by proxy, the Big Ten’s decision to follow suit. The MAC was unequivocal in listing their reasons for cancellation, and led a united front with presidents and athletic directors, and in general, received praise. On the other hand, the Big Ten making the same decision on the heels of the MAC, fumbled their announcement and seemed to have not gotten true agreement, allowing room for criticism. Recently, a group of parents protesting the conference’s decision have marched upon Rosemont, Illinois, to make their grievances known in-person and online, with several petitions to re-open the season garnering thousands of signatures online.

Some think that the SEC and other conferences might use this opportunity to poach some players from the other conferences, but again, with no real NCAA guidance as of publication, I’m not sure that would work. Thus far, most student-athletes have chosento opt-out and/or go pro, as opposed to transferring to new institutions, perhaps a signal that college sports will continue to be affected even into the next proper season.

As the SEC and Big XII continue to place political pressure on the Big Ten and other conferences to reconsider their decisions, the debate will inevitably continue when the cool fall air breezes in. Seriously, I wish the conferences that wish to continue the best of luck because they are going to need it.

If the pro leagues are any indication, there are no perfect answers to this situation. We’ve seen at least two Major League Baseball team miss significant chunks of their respective seasons due to COVID-19. I don’t expect college football to do a better job of quarantining than Major League Baseball. The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League are doing a good job of their seasons/playoffs, but they’re only able to accomplish that because they are using partial leagues and bubbles. Hell, the NHL dragged their bubble to Canada in order to ensure the season. I don’t expect college football to go to that length (nor am I sure they would want to).

As I’ve said in my other two stories about this, I don’t expect a return to normalcy unless there is a vaccine or improved testing/isolation, and until then, it’s sort of silly to argue about “normalcy. The vaccine is months away (at best). Testing/isolation could happen more in earnest with some willpower from the top, but as we’ve seen, that just isn’t there at the moment. Simply put, we’re in a world of unknowns right now, and only time will tell who made the right decisions.