If the coronavirus epidemic remains in place in August, there are two bitter realities higher education would have to accept.
The first — and the more important one — is a fall term that would begin by remote instruction. Whether it remained that way through December would be dependent upon the state of the pandemic. (The only other option: the reported Boston University model, but that would mean no classes at all.)
The second is the potential for no college football. Before I go any further, a message to the people who think the game will be played with no people in the stands:
WE WOULD BE IN A PANDEMIC.
Any athletic director who allows football players (and any other player in any other fall sport) to practice and play should be fired and then hauled off to jail for gross negligence. The potential for coronavirus to spread from human to human has been well documented; there’s no way football teams can operate knowing that.
“If we don’t have fans in the stands, then we determined it’s not safe for them. So why would it be safe for the players?”
So, let’s stop the nonsense that there would be college games without fans. That ain’t happening.
The fallout from a fall without college football would be the equivalent of King Kong ravaging a major metropolitan city. We’re already seeing financial decisions brought about by the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournaments and the entire spring sports schedule. Those decisions will become more draconian if there’s no football.
By one estimate, a canceled season would take $4.1-billion out of the coffers of athletic departments across the country. For sake of this blog post, let’s accept that figure as accurate.
Take away the income from football and you take away a whole lot. Football and men’s basketball pay the freight at big and small schools. As Forbes noted,
(N)o matter whether you’re Ohio University or Penn State, football and men’s basketball are generally the only profit producing sports. When profits from those two sports aren’t large enough to cover the other sports and other expenses like recruiting and coaches salaries, schools generally have to rely upon student fees and other types of direct institutional support.
But make no mistake, football is the real moneymaker among those two sports.
Athletic department leaders already showing signs of deep concern.
-Coaches at Oregon State University have agreed to pay cuts; other coaches at other schools have done the same. (Side note to my fellow higher education faculty: Similar pay cuts already are affecting our colleagues, and all of us are certain to be asked to accept the same if coronavirus continues to upend normal operations into the fall.)
-Meanwhile, five “mid-major” conferences have petitioned the NCAA for a relaxing of the current Division I requirements.
As ESPN notes, the five conference commissioners’ letter to the NCAA included this statement:
“As you are aware, the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant economic turmoil has resulted in the direst financial crisis for higher education since at least the Great Depression,” the commissioners wrote.
Put another way, college sports as a whole would be in deep financial doo-doo if there’s a major disruption to college football. Many athletics departments operate in the red, and absent college football the financial blood bath would be ugly.
That ugliness could include the following:
-Many schools chopping programs such as baseball, wrestling, soccer, rifle and the often called “Olympic sports”
-Schools that offer football would have the additional responsibility of remaining in compliance with Title IX; this is certain to mean more men’s than women’s sports would be eliminated
-Reducing athletic scholarships either across the board (i.e. football) or in percentage terms for sports that don’t offer full rides (i.e. baseball)
-Schedule adjustments with the largest schools being unable (or unwilling) to play smaller schools.
You also can add to this list that student fees, used by many institutions to fund their sports programs, might be earmarked to fund more of the academic mission; this decision would remove even more money from athletic department budgets.
It’s not inconceivable to say that the largest schools (those in the so-called Power 5 conferences) opt to go it alone when the new television contracts are negotiated.
If this were to take place, imagine an NCAA men’s basketball tournament in which the “best” teams get in, but they all come from the major conferences. If you’re a graduate of Gonzaga, UNLV, Georgetown or other “mid-major” schools that at one time or another dominated college basketball, then you’d never see such success again in “March Madness.” Your school would be relegated to a kind-of “Oh, yes, your school matters, too” tournament. But the big dogs would no longer feast with you.
We know coronavirus is putting demands on presidents and chancellors to determine how their schools’ academic programs will be delivered in the summer and the fall. And no matter how much you or I love sports, those decisions are the most important. Their decisions about what to do with their sports programs will be under a white-hot spotlight if football doesn’t happen in 2020.
And football might not happen this fall.