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As Big Ten and Pac-12 cancel fall seasons, college football splinters and teeters

A Big Ten conference logo is painted on the football field at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb. (Jacob Hannah/Lincoln Journal Star via AP)
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The Big Ten and Pac-12 became the first college football conferences at the sport’s highest level to cancel their fall seasons Tuesday, the culmination of 48 fractious hours within the sport that included players organizing in unprecedented fashion, President Trump advocating for a season to happen, conferences following differing medical guidance and coaches hinting at rebellion against their own conference leadership to play amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The Big Ten’s and Pac-12′s decisions were the latest steps toward the full cancellation of an American sporting staple that has unfolded every autumn for 150 years. But with the sport lacking a central authority, other major conferences have indicated they either intend to play this fall or will wait before deciding, and presidents from the Big 12 voted Tuesday night to move forward with the season, according to widespread reports. The Big Ten and Pac-12 said they could play football in the spring, although the logistics of doing so remain unclear.

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement that after hours of discussion with infectious-disease experts from the conferences, “it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

“Unlike professional sports, college sports cannot operate in a bubble,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said in a virtual news conference. “Our athletic programs are part of broader campuses in communities where in many cases the prevalence of covid-19 is significant.”

When the pandemic halted college sports and the rest of American life in mid-March, administrators viewed the stoppage of college football as a financially catastrophic but unlikely prospect. The country had five months to control the outbreak, and they had ample time to plan contingencies. But as summer seeps into fall, the country remains unable to control the virus, and college sports are lacking both central leadership and options, with football becoming the latest front in the country’s culture war.

Sally Jenkins: Big Ten and Pac-12 leaders had the courage to exercise a rare American trait: Caution

“The problem is, we have way too much virus, way too much transmission to be thinking about things like football,” said Emory School of Medicine infectious diseases professor Carlos del Rio, who serves on the NCAA’s coronavirus advisory board. “I’m a big fan of football. I think it would be great. But we have to have better control of the infection, and I think we as a country have not done a good job in having control of the infection.”

The chaotic recent days laid bare the conflicting incentives and unequal powers of the parties involved. While university athletic departments rely on major college football programs for revenue, players receive limited compensation and have no collective bargaining power.

Canceling football season, or even attempting to play with no fans, will have massive financial ramifications for universities who compete in the so-called Power Five conferences, most of which are large, state institutions already facing athletic revenue shortfalls from the canceled NCAA men’s basketball tournament in March. Local economies in college towns where football draws thousands of visitors could face devastating effects.

Athletic departments are “going to have to make up for huge losses they’ve incurred right now,” said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “They’re going to start from a smaller space. They’re going to want to build back up to where they were, but it’s going to take some time to do that.”

President Trump called on college football to continue on Aug. 11, adding that "young, strong people" will not have a problem with the "China virus." (Video: The Washington Post)

Among the five major conferences, decisions to play so far have broken down largely along geographic and political lines. The Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences, based in the Southeast, have given strong indications they want to play. The Big 12, with schools in the Southwest and Midwest, is now reportedly poised to move forward. The Pac-12 is based on the West Coast, and the Big Ten’s footprint extends from the upper Midwest to the Northeast.

The NCAA, which runs and conducts championships for all other varsity college sports, creates eligibility rules and guidelines for college football, but the sport is run by a consortium of conference commissioners who answer to college presidents within their leagues. Those commissioners held a call Sunday and came to no consensus, which has led to a piecemeal, partial unraveling of the season while players are left without resolution on myriad issues, including eligibility concerns and how workouts will unfold until they are allowed to compete again.

In an interview Tuesday with Fox Sports Radio, Trump said canceling the college football season would be a “tragic mistake” and insisted falsely that covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, would not harm the players.

“This attacks older people, very viciously by the way,” Trump said. “It can be if it’s the wrong person, but these football players, they’re very young, strong people, and physically, I mean they’re physically in extraordinary shape, so they’re not going to have a problem.”

Health experts worry coronavirus could cause lasting heart complications for athletes

While athletes are at less risk than the general population of severe illness or death, some college football players already have experienced serious side effects and other long-term health concerns have emerged. Cardiovascular experts are worried about possible long-term effects of covid-19 on the heart. For athletes especially, those concerns include the possibility of covid-19 leading to myocarditis, the inflammation of the heart because of infection.

The Big Ten’s cancellation hinged on two medical realities, Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith said. The unknowns about short- and long-term effects of covid-19 were worrisome. And the challenge of contact tracing for players hitting one another during daily practices could not be solved.

“The reality is the game is not like sitting in a classroom,” Smith said. “It’s not like walking across campus. It’s not like wearing masks while you’re in a lab. It’s full-contact.”

At a “roundtable” news conference also attended by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who said the state wants college football to be played, Florida State President John Thrasher said the ACC had reviewed studies about how covid-19 affects the heart, but that it was still comfortable with its testing protocols being able to protect players in locker rooms and on campus.

Duke University infectious-disease specialist Cameron Wolfe, who chairs the ACC’s Medical Advisory Group, told Sports Business Journal he believes the fall season could be conducted.

“Can we safely have two teams meet on the field? I would say yes,” Wolfe said. “Will it be tough? Yes. Will it be expensive and hard and lots of work? For sure. But I do believe you can sufficiently mitigate the risk of bringing covid onto the football field or into the training room at a level that’s no different than living as a student on campus.”

After premature reports surfaced Monday morning that the Big Ten had voted to cancel the football season, those in favor of canceling the fall college football season faced a wave of backlash that included some of the sport’s most prominent coaches — including Nebraska’s Scott Frost, who suggested his school would attempt to play regardless of orders from the Big Ten.

Trump calls potential cancellation of college football season ‘tragic mistake’

After Tuesday’s announcement, Frost and Athletic Director Bill Moos released a statement saying they were “very disappointed” by the decision and remained ready to play. In an interview on Big Ten Network, Warren declined to answer when pressed about the legality of Nebraska or any other Big Ten school playing elsewhere.

To mimic the protocols of professional sports leagues that have returned to play, colleges would have to administer daily tests and enforce social distancing. Those precautions may be difficult for colleges to justify, both financially and ethically, as many welcome students back for the fall semester.

Many major programs have practiced with limited or no positive cases, but outbreaks have ravaged others even before students arrived on campuses that are holding classes in person. As teams have grappled with outbreaks, some players took matters into their own hands. Many players, including several stars projected to be chosen in the first round of next year’s NFL draft, have opted out of playing this fall.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said his league, which has pushed back the scheduled start of its season, would continue at a deliberate pace and wait to make a decision on its season. Del Rio saw wisdom in at least delaying the start of the season, to see whether overall spread of the virus decreases.

“I think it would have huge value, because it would get us in a much better position,” Del Rio said.