At the end of a seven-day span of unprecedented tumult in college athletic history, I circled back with a prominent industry source who offered (unsolicited) this whopper quote to me last Saturday: “I think by the end of the week the fall sports will be postponed in all conferences.”
He was right, with one nine-figure exception. All NCAA fall sports championships have been postponed except for FBS football, which lost four conferences but still has six others inhabiting an eroding Football Island.
Said source, who works in one of the Stubborn Six leagues still planning to play, was surprised at where we stand. “After the Big Ten and Pac-12 canceled, I thought there would be a lot more pressure on us to follow suit.” Whatever pressure is out there has been withstood so far. But it’s not easy, because some of the pressure is still coming from within the guts of every single decision-maker.
That source, like the other two-dozen college administrators, coaches or athletes I’ve talked to this week, sounded conflicted. Nobody is sure what to do. There is no absolute conviction—not in postponing and not in proceeding. Every decision is accompanied by a twist of doubt about what is the right thing.
A shortened fall season with almost no fans and no true national championship, in the midst of a pandemic with no vaccine? Yuck. An ersatz spring season that may or may not happen with a vaccine that may or may not happen and could negatively impact next season? Yuck.
“We don’t have good options,” that source said.
And thus, everyone in college sports is miserable right now.
Athletes are beyond tired of the uncertainty, and the lack of concrete answers from their university leaders. One Power 5 athletic director met with a group of athletes and said he could see the strain on their faces and hear it in their voices. (The mental health concerns are real, whether a season is being played or not being played.) A Group of Five AD apologized to his football team for the lack of leadership right now in college sports.
Coaches are frustrated, bewildered, angry, concerned and caught in the middle. The players below them want answers and are getting few good ones—and more than a few of them are going public with their unhappiness. The administrators above them are requiring rigorous team adherence to high health standards — to the extent that some head coaches are spending more time enforcing interpersonal distancing during practice than actually coaching. Many teams that went to great lengths to reduce virus spread still had their seasons canceled this week.
Campus and conference administrators are fried from the endless Zoom calls and other meetings to discuss every difficult aspect of college sports during a pandemic. One AD said he’s spending time at the end of every day sitting alone in his backyard staring into the distance, a brief reprieve from the computer screen and the pressure of trying to make the best decisions amid bad circumstances.
These are all smart people, and the vast majority of them are well-meaning people, too. They just don't know with any clarity what to do. Mental exhaustion is the prevailing status update.
Anyone saying this is simple—to play or not to play—is an idiot or a liar or incapable of thinking beyond their own tiny worldview. Don’t be scared is not a strategy for dealing with something that has killed more than 167,000 Americans and infected more than 5 million. Shut everything down is not a realistic long-term answer, either.
So there should be some empathy for all stakeholders in college athletics. We are averaging more than 1,000 COVID-19 deaths per day in America right now—but almost none of them are young athletes. Many people without an interest in college sports cannot believe anyone is trying to play right now—but many people on the inside very much want to play. There are a lot more important issues in the world—but if you’re watching revenues tank while trying to lead a $100 million operation, that’s a pretty big issue in your own world.
All that said, this has been a pretty abysmal performance from college athletics as a whole.
Many administrators proclaimed back in the spring that they had dozens of models for how to play a football season. Tellingly, they never went into detail about what those models were—perhaps because it was a hollow boast. They dawdled, didn’t make decisions, didn’t focus on much of anything beyond hoping it was going to turn out O.K. Hope is a lousy strategy.
Releasing schedules one week and canceling the season the next was not a great idea. Coaches saying they were going to rely on medical experts, then wheeling around and publicly lobbying to “fight for their players” to play was either inconsistent or disingenuous. (And also an obvious signal to recruits.) Nobody, at any level, has been willing to lay out numbers—percentages of positive tests, or whatever the metric would be—that would necessitate a team shutdown.
The lack of leadership goes to what should be the top, the NCAA, but that isn’t really even the top in the case of big-time football. Which is part of the problem. Still, the NCAA managed to get some information out Thursday that some in the Stubborn Six conferences unhappily saw as a means of pressuring them not to play.
NCAA medical experts held a media call in which Dr. Carlos del Rio, an associate dean at Emory University in Atlanta, delivered the money quote: “I mean, I feel like the Titanic. We have hit the iceberg and we are trying to make decisions on what time should we have the band play?”
As of Friday afternoon, the Stubborn Six band is playing on. They’ve made it this far, which is a surprise to some. How much longer they go, we don’t know, but the next iceberg is dead ahead.
Full student bodies are reporting back to campuses nationwide right now.