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Battle of Football Island: 6 FBS Conferences Stand Their Ground to Play the 2020 Season

After Mark Emmert called off all NCAA fall sports championships except football, the one he cannot touch, 76 FBS schools still are clinging to it with desperate determination.

Amid the rising seas of pandemic postponements, Football Island now is the only thing left.

That eroding strip of land is where the final battle for college athletics in an endless summer of angst will be fought. Part passion, part politics and part pay checks, this squabble comes down to two remaining outcomes: six of the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences (three superpowers, three tag-alongs) defend the island and keep trying to play; or the last holdouts submit to the tides and submerge until 2021.

The rest of the college athletics archipelago disappeared Thursday. Someone bearing a strong resemblance to Mark Emmert (remember him?) popped his head out of the fortress of solitude in Indianapolis and called off all NCAA fall sports championships—all of them except the one he cannot touch, the one that matters most, the only one that ever really mattered, the one that 76 schools still are clinging to with desperate determination.

Football. Arguably the least-safe sport to contest amid the COVID-19 reality, but also inarguably the most important sport to American culture and collegiate bank accounts.

Emmert, the NCAA president who had been largely invisible for weeks, dropped a 5:30 p.m. ET social media message announcing the postponement of championships for men’s and women’s cross country and soccer, women’s field hockey and volleyball, and men’s water polo. “Rather than think about it as a canceled or lost fall, let’s think of it as a pivot toward the spring,” Emmert said, further backing the defenders of Football Island into a corner.

“Is the NCAA trying to pressure the conferences remaining by rolling out their doctors and moving other championships to the spring?” one assistant football coach surmised.

With the previous decisions by almost every lower-level conference to abandon fall sports and hope for spring, then the announcements this week from the powerhouse tandem of the Big Ten and Pac-12 to do the same, then the loss of NCAA-sanctioned championships, the Stubborn Six are up against it.

"Does the fall proceed with only six FBS conferences playing football and no one else doing anything?” Asked one Group of Five athletic director. “That’s where we are."

The Big 12, Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences will call the shots going forward, with the American Athletic, Conference USA and Sun Belt willing to ride or fold alongside them. All of them have soldiered on toward playing fall sports, but the dynamics just changed.

They can simply field a football team and nothing else this fall, which would look exactly like what it is—a naked money grab that would also appease their fan bases. Or they could basically raise double birds to the NCAA and say We believe all fall sports are safe to contest, so we’re going to play them all, even if there is no national championship. This could be a principled stand on behalf of all athletes—or it could be a shameless smokescreen to justify continuing to play football.

Speaking for the latter sentiment, one Group of Five athletic director said this: “We have to go on a crusade to not delay fall sports. We’ve got to hang in there. If we don’t, it weakens the case to play football.”

If the Power 5 wants to create the worst of all optics, this would be it: encourage/coerce non-revenue teams to bypass a potential full spring slate to play a hollow fall schedule, solely to prop up the football crusade.

"Will those ADs and conferences dig their heels in about playing these women's sports in the fall because football is playing?” Asked an industry source. “Or will they go with what their coaches want?"

Earlier this month, Sports Illustrated reported on discussions in some Power 5 conferences about holding their own fall sports championships if the NCAA came to the conclusion it announced Thursday. That was seen as both a potential breakaway move from the much-disliked NCAA and a way to prop up the football crusade.

But when the Big Ten and Pac-12 both bailed on fall sports, that potential power move lost a lot of muscle. One Power-5 athletic director termed it “unlikely” Thursday night. Would playing for a conference title be enough to constitute a satisfying season for nationally prominent programs?

“Obviously our student-athletes want a chance to compete for championships,” Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said. “But there is so much going on right now that it would be anybody’s guess what is the best path to go down at this point.”

This NCAA decision was always a possibility, but it was not expected now. An NCAA board was expected to make a ruling Aug. 21. Instead, Emmert stepped up and took over the situation with a social media blast, then followed it with a webcast 90 minutes later. That did not sit well with some members of the rank and file.

“To learn more about the NCAA cancelling fall championships everyone has to tune in to a social TV show tonight at 7 p.m.?” An AD complained. “Tens of thousands of student-athletes just had the rug pulled out from under them and the NCAA is looking for better social ratings? Tone deaf doesn’t quite cut it.”

This came while most universities still are looking to give their athletes answers to important questions about what their future may hold without a competition season.

“Among our frustrations with the NCAA is that they keep making announcements like this without having first decided the myriad of associated issues involving eligibility, scholarship limits, competition seasons, roster size, etc.” said one Power-5 AD. “That is an enormous disservice to the students.”

And in this instance, it also served to push the Stubborn Six back into an ever-shrinking plot of ground on Football Island. Is it still full-speed ahead toward kickoff?

“Full speed? Not sure about that,” one Power-5 AD said. “Cautiously moving forward more like it.”