The hot topic on sports talk radio during the past few months has been when and where and how college football will be played this fall. It has always been talked about as if playing was automatic. On most shows, no one has prefaced these questions with “if.”
Commissioners of the five big sports conferences held an emergency meeting on Sunday, due to the growing concern that the football season and other fall sports might need to be put off until spring because of the uncertainty of coronavirus pandemic. The current state of college football is that “In the next 72 hours college football is going to come to a complete stop,” one college football industry source told Sports Illustrated.
Several college athletic officials told ESPN over the past few days that the postponement or cancellation of the fall football season seems inevitable, and that either the Big Ten or PAC-12 would probably be the first league to do it. “Nobody wanted to be the first to do it,” a coach told ESPN, “and now nobody will want to be the last.”
And now preliminary reports indicate the Big Ten has moved on cancelling the fall season, and a formal announcement is expected on Tuesday, sources told the Detroit Free Press. It is also being reported the PAC-12 will cancel their fall season tomorrow as well.
So what happened? A few things.
Most importantly, the decline in COVID-19 cases didn’t appear as planned. As infectious-disease specialist Paul Pottinger said in late June, “What I’m really worried about is, campus by campus, across the country, students coming back on the campus and spreading [the virus] like wildfire in their living situations . . . unless we get past that, unless we can break that cycle, then it’s hard to imagine campuses even opening up for the fall—for any purpose, much less for athletics.”
But there was also the realization that medical professionals have long warned that college football players—and the students and coaches who help run the programs—would be at a much higher risk for getting the virus than other major sport because of the large numbers and the close physical contact between them—in huddles, in locker rooms, and—most importantly—at the line of scrimmage where players with a high Body Mass Index (BMI) (e.g. 300-pound linemen) will, as one expert put it, be “the ones who are in the trenches getting pelted with respiratory secretions.”
And the high BMI matters for COVID. Individuals judged to be overweight by BMI “do tend to have more of a tendency to develop severe infection than someone who is not obese, and that applies whether you’re an athlete or not an athlete,” says Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins and an expert in infectious disease who is part of the NCAA’s coronavirus advisory panel
All of which is complicated by the infection probabilities from full-contact practices, the need to quarantine the players and staff throughout the season, and the necessary travel needed to play the schedule.
Dominoes started falling when the Ivy League cancelled their entire fall sports competition in early July. About a week ago, NCAA Division II and Division III schools—about 750 universities total—announced they were putting off all sports until spring. The University of Connecticut, a major Division I independent school, said it was canceling its season.
This past weekend the 12-school Mid-American Conference postponed all fall sports. And then the Big-10 announced it was not allowing full-pads contact football practices until further notice. And if/when the Big-10 announces that it will cancel the fall season, the other Power Five conferences will almost certainly follow.
There may be political ramifications. The states with huge football programs that sellout 100,000-seat stadiums are predominantly in swing states. And a lack of fall football will be one more sign that America has not returned to normal.
The Power Five conferences—the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference, and Southeastern Conference—have 65 teams. Now look at the states which are in play at the presidential level: Texas and North Carolina are each home to four Power Five schools, Michigan, Iowa, Arizona, and Georgia each have two Power Five schools apiece.
That’s 131 Electoral College votes.
President Trump has long advocated that all sports—college and pro—be up and running in the fall. If college football is canceled this week, who will he blame? He won’t be able to hang it on Joe Biden, who has been largely silent on the subject. Perhaps he could try blaming the schools themselves. Or the coaches. Or perhaps the players. (This last seems like the approach which would be best received by Trump’s base.)
But will voters actually buy it? Donald Trump’s entire pitch to America is that he handled the pandemic well and that the American comeback is well underway.
A nation full of empty stadiums would suggest otherwise.