College Football on Brink After Big Ten, Pac-12 Nix Seasons

The Pac-12 and Big Ten postponed the 2020 college football season on Tuesday, becoming the first “Power Five” conferences to step back from one of the biggest cash cows in college sports as the Covid-19 pandemic rages.

“Our primary responsibility is to make the best possible decisions in the interest of our students, faculty and staff,” Morton Schapiro, chair of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors and president of Northwestern University, said in a statement announcing the postponement of football and other sports.

“All of the Pac-12 presidents and chancellors understand the importance of this decision, and the disappointment it will create for our student-athletes, the coaches, support staff and all of our fans,” said Michael H. Schill, president of the University of Oregon. “Ultimately, our decision was guided by science and a deep commitment to the health and welfare of student-athletes.”

Both conferences left open the possibility of competition in the spring.

The decisions ratchet up pressure on other major U.S. conferences to forgo a sport that can generate more than $100 million a year for elite programs. The 12-member Mountain West Conference, which includes Boise State University and the University of Hawaii, announced Monday that it will indefinitely postpone all fall sports. The Ivy League, Mid-American Conference and smaller schools including Morehouse College already had ditched or postponed football along with other fall competition.

Now the focus turns to whether the other three major conferences -- the Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference -- will follow. The Big 12 is seen as the most likely candidate to scuttle its season with conference officials holding meetings late Tuesday.

Players in the Big Ten and Pac-12 expressed their dismay over the decisions. Among those was Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, who was bookmakers’ favorite to win the Heisman Trophy this year.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association would determine the next step for fall athletes who are seniors, as it did in March when it granted an extra year of playing eligibility for students’ whose sports were canceled, said Willis Jones, associate professor of higher education at the University of South Florida. Then, it would be up to the schools to grant scholarships for an additional year if the sports are canceled instead of postponed, he said.

For the Big Ten, the announcement ends days of speculation and debate as administrators raced to determine whether football in particular could safely go forward as deaths in the U.S. continue to mount. Ultimately, concerns over the health of student-athletes forced the conference to reverse course on a season that it had planned for as recently as last week.

Big Ten players and coaches made a last-ditch effort to save the season, even after it was reported Monday that college presidents had voted 12-2 to end it.

Nebraska, Michigan

University of Nebraska coach Scott Frost advocated for a season, even if that means exploring other options outside the conference. Jim Harbaugh at the University of Michigan released a statement citing his program’s success in containing Covid-19, while Ryan Day, his rival at Ohio State University, took to Twitter to say the fight continues.

President Donald Trump also weighed in on Twitter, urging the games to go on.

“We are very disappointed in the decision by the Big Ten Conference to postpone the fall football season, as we have been and continue to be ready to play,” Frost said in a statement.

Billions of dollars in television and ticket revenue are at stake.

“The financial implications of this are enormous,” said Marc Ganis, president of consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd. “But the economics can get meaningfully mitigated if they play in the spring. And the human cost can be meaningfully mitigated if they play in the spring.”

Other fall sports affected by the Big Ten’s decision include men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, football, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in the statement. “There was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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