Exactly one month before most of the college football world once expected to start a new season, Wednesday showed just how difficult it will be to stage autumn sports during the coronavirus pandemic.
The University of Connecticut canceled its football season. More college athletes around the country opted out from playing. Even the publication of the Big Ten football schedule Wednesday came with the dispiriting qualifier that not one game might actually be played, and Maryland said it expected to begin its season without fans at Maryland Stadium.
Then the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Divisions II and III canceled championships in fall sports. Louisville, which plays in Division I, said it had suspended athletic activities in field hockey, volleyball and men’s and women’s soccer after 29 players tested positive for the virus. And the College Football Playoff said it would delay the release of its all-important final rankings until close to Christmas.
Taken together, Wednesday’s announcements again starkly demonstrated the newly persistent precariousness of college sports, an industry that has seen its plans — and its revised plans — upended throughout the pandemic.
“It’s fluid,” Kevin Warren, the Big Ten commissioner, said in an interview Wednesday. “It changes by the day. There’s no guarantee that we’re going to have sports in the fall.”
“We are,” he added, “absolutely living in an uncertain time.”
UConn put an end to some of its uncertainty by becoming the first Football Bowl Subdivision school to abandon its football season fully. Although the decision came after a third of the university’s expected games had been canceled because of the scheduling policies of assorted leagues, the school, an independent in football, said health concerns were too grave to proceed with a season in any form.
The Ivy League, as well as many historically Black colleges and universities, reached similar conclusions earlier this summer.
“The safety challenges created by COVID-19 place our football student-athletes at an unacceptable level of risk,” David Benedict, the athletic director at Connecticut, where the football team posted a 2-10 record last season, said in a statement. “The necessary measures needed to mitigate risk of football student-athletes contracting the coronavirus are not conducive to delivering an optimal experience for our team.”
UConn officials said the team’s football players drove the decision. In a statement released through the university, the players said they did so in part because “not enough is known about the potential long-term effects of contracting” the virus.
“We came to campus in the beginning of July knowing there would be challenges presented by the pandemic, but it is apparent to us now that these challenges are impossible to overcome,” the players said.
Although the team did not have any athletes who had recently tested positive for the virus or been in quarantine, Connecticut has gone through periods when it was down at least 10 men because of symptoms or possible exposure to infected people.
UConn’s athletic program has struggled financially, and the football team posted a deficit of more than $13 million last year. University officials insisted, though, that any financial effects of skipping the season had not been decisive.
Speaking on a conference call with reporters on the day his team was supposed to begin practice, Randy Edsall, UConn’s coach, said, “These young men’s lives are more important than money.”
But billions of dollars are at stake across college sports this fall. Although the industry’s top executives have pledged to prioritize health and safety, they have also found themselves weighing how to balance lucrative competitions with the virus’s largely unchecked rampage across America.
They are also increasingly facing alarmed athletes. Some players, emboldened by this year’s wave of student activism across college sports, have voiced concerns about taking the field and threatened boycotts if certain demands are not met.
But big-time college football is a largely decentralized sport, with the NCAA having only limited authority, and responses to the pandemic are fragmented on everything from testing protocols to start dates.
Some conferences, like the Southeastern, shrank schedules and pushed the first games of their football seasons deeper into September, a decision that some university officials said would allow them to assess the pandemic’s course once more students returned to campuses.
The Big Ten said Wednesday that it would attempt to start its conference-only slate Sept. 3, when Ohio State is to play at Illinois. Under the conference’s current plan, the regular season will end Nov. 21, one week earlier than originally intended, and the league’s championship game will be held, as long scheduled, on Dec. 5 in Indianapolis.
Still, the jigsaw puzzle that is a conference football schedule is far more pliable than normal. The start of the Big Ten’s season could be moved to three other weekends in September, and the title game could be played as late as Dec. 19.
Indeed, the league pointedly noted in a statement that “issuing a schedule does not guarantee that competition will occur” and that it was prepared to cancel games.
“While this seems like a step in the right direction to the return of collegiate athletics, I can’t help but feel conflicted knowing that even in the best-case scenario, our return to football will be nothing like the experience we all love,” Barry Alvarez, the athletic director at Wisconsin, said in a letter to football season-ticket holders Wednesday, when he said it would “not be appropriate for thousands of fans to gather in Camp Randall on Saturdays this fall.”
The missive itself, a plea to donate to Wisconsin, was a reminder of the pandemic’s growing financial toll. The athletic department, Alvarez said, was facing a revenue loss of at least $60 million, a figure that could rise as high as $100 million depending on how the football season evolved. Other universities expect to lose tens of millions of dollars. In the end, the repercussions could be most acutely felt in sports without large television contracts or games that draw more than 80,000 spectators.
Many of those sports could be greatly diminished this fall, and the NCAA said championships would be canceled if at least half of a sport’s teams chose not to compete.
The association, battered for months over what critics condemned as a hands-off approach to fall sports, also said it would create ways for students and parents to report schools that did not follow appropriate safety guidelines, and it banned its member colleges and universities from tying participation in sports to a student’s signature on a coronavirus-specific waiver.
Although college sports leaders had until Aug. 21 to reach decisions about NCAA-sanctioned championships in sports like cross-country and soccer, Division III, a nonscholarship level that consists of about 450 schools, made its choice less than three hours after the association announced this month’s deadline. The NCAA cited the “pandemic and related administrative and financial challenges” and added that it was “logistically untenable and financially prohibitive” to move the fall championships to the spring. By the end of the day, Division II, a level that awards some scholarships, had canceled its seven championships.
Officials who help lead Division I — but do not have any control over the College Football Playoff — are scheduled to meet next week.
Officials of the Playoff said Wednesday that they would not issue final rankings, which determine the matchups for semifinal games, until Dec. 20, two weeks after they were expected, because of delayed conference championship events.
The schedule for the playoff games themselves was left unchanged, with the semifinals set for Jan. 1 in New Orleans and Pasadena, Calif. The championship matchup is planned for the Miami area on Jan. 11.