Reports have circulated about the fate of the fall football season for months, the uncertainty hanging thickest among the Power 5 conferences, many of which have made every effort to keep some semblance of a fall season in place. But it’s become clear that after much mulling and scenario-planning, there’s finally a clock on conferences to decide whether or not they’ll play. The decision, however, isn’t quite as clear-cut as a yes or a no.
The Power 5 conferences had already decided to go with a mostly conference-only slate, announcing schedule revisions in recent weeks. Players started opting out, citing health and safety concerns connected to COVID-19. The commissioners of college football’s top-tier conferences then participated in an “emergency meeting,” to address the status of fall sports over the weekend. Soon after, reports surfaced that the Big Ten was getting ready to pull the plug and the Pac-12 wouldn’t be far behind.
In response, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and a number of players from other Power 5 schools (including Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and UNC’s Sam Howell) started a movement in favor of playing the season. Using the hashtag #WeWantToPlay, they connected their activism with the #WeAreUnited movement started by hundreds of Pac-12 players. Both campaigns outline policies the athletes want enacted to ensure safe play.
There’s a similar argument being pushed by coaches, administrators and politicians—that football players are safer on campus preparing for sports than they are in any other scenario. “The virus is going to be here whether we play football or not,” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said Monday. “I feel 100% certain that the safest place for our players in regards to the coronavirus is right here, where there’s structure, where there’s testing, where there’s medical supervision.”
Despite the pressure from some involved, a handful of Power 5 athletic directors told Sportico that by the end of the week, they expect everyone to have reached the same conclusion: There won’t be football this fall. This spring, perhaps. But for now, here’s where each conference stands and the biggest things still up in the air:
Where Each Power 5 Conference Stands
Big Ten: The Big Ten is expected to be the first domino to fall, but more than likely won’t be the last. After initial reports surfaced that the conference’s school presidents had convened Sunday night on a call and voted in favor of canceling the fall football season 12-2 (Nebraska and Iowa reportedly dissented), the conference said no official vote had been held. Big Ten athletic directors were scheduled to continue discussions Monday night on a call.
Pac-12: The Pac-12 will likely follow the Big Ten, but as of Monday, they weren’t as close to pulling the plug, sources told Sportico. With calls scheduled for Monday afternoon into Tuesday amongst the conference’s different decision-makers (athletic directors, presidents, Pac-12 personnel), the conference was a few steps behind its east coast counterpart but a similar announcement is expected soon.
Big 12: Bob Bowlsby and the Big 12 are reportedly on the fence about what comes next, but conference athletic directors and medical consultants will reportedly join presidents and chancellors on a call Tuesday. The Big 12 told Sportico Monday that it is “continuing to gather expert advice from its medical advisors,” but nothing further on the fall has been decided.
ACC: The ACC has remained tight-lipped on its plans for fall after unveiling its 11-game season (10 conference opponents and one non-conference game) schedule on August 6. The conference’s silence is, however, being taken as a sign that it’s still testing the shortened fall season waters. In July, long-time independent Notre Dame agreed to join the ACC as a football member for the 2020 season, a move that should grow the league’s coffers and visibility should games be played. Conference presidents have a scheduled meeting Wednesday.
SEC: The SEC may be the last to let go of the hope of a college football season and is currently moving forward as planned. On Monday morning, Dan Patrick reported on his radio show that the SEC is trying to get a “delay” to allow teams from conferences where football is canceled to join them. Patrick reported the SEC was even looking at exclusive television contracts. Ohio State linebacker Teradja Mitchell and Buckeyes’ wide receivers coach Brian Hartline added fuel to those fiery rumors later that day, tweeting their support for joining the SEC as Big Ten speculation spread. Commissioner Greg Sankey, however, tweeted that “patience” was driving his conference’s decision-making process as each day brings new information about the virus. SEC presidents did, however, reportedly schedule an impromptu meeting for Monday, but no vote was expected.
While the COVID-19 pandemic is the most pressing issue facing college sports administrators, it might not be their biggest worry. The last few months have also seen an unprecedented amount of organization from athletes across the country, who are starting to leverage their power to achieve systemic change.
It started with NCAA stars speaking out about racism, the confederate flag and fringe news organizations, and has now shifted to much broader issues surrounding their rights as a workforce that generates billions in annual revenue. The #WeAreUnited group wants 50% of Pac-12 revenue to go to athletes. The #WeWantToPlay movement is asking for a college football players’ association.
This comes amid increased anti-trust pressure and the fallout from multiple states forcing the NCAA to let athletes market themselves. That’s an existential crisis for some in college sports, one with much bigger financial effects than COVID-19.
“Any sustained athletes’ rights movement is the scariest prospect for the NCAA, commissioners and athletic directors,” said David Ridpath, a sports management professor at Ohio University and former president of the Drake Group. “The system they so desperately want to protect is the real reason they want to cancel fall sports.”
One concern raised during this decision-making process was that no conference wanted to be the first to jump ship on the season for fear that their star players would transfer to a program in a conference still planning to play. For grad transfers and those with approved waivers who are immediately eligible, this might’ve been a feasible option. But for most college football players, transferring requires a one-year “academic year in residence,” during which they cannot play.
A proposed one-time transfer waiver which would allow college athletes to be immediately eligible at a new school was tabled until at least the 2021-22 academic year. The NCAA did approve a measure calling for the development of new legislation, but nothing will go into effect this year. Waivers would still be needed by transferring players for a potential 2020 season, making the concept of a mass exodus to conferences forging ahead hard to fathom. The NCAA has not made a statement about whether or not waivers would be granted to players who transfer as the result of conference cancellations. Most conferences, however, have stated that any player who opts out due to the pandemic will retain their year of eligibility.
“Last-minute” transfers also raise complications for university registrars and housing offices.
Fall semesters are beginning. Ordinarily, schools have “add/drop” periods, during which students can enroll in courses after the registration period and earn credit in them. However, add/drop periods are limited to the start of the semester, in part because schools must satisfy compliance requirements with regional and national accreditors—universities can only award credit to students who complete the bulk of a course. In other words, any transfers for the fall football season must happen soon.
Meanwhile, incoming transfer students usually need housing. This concern is possibly diminished by many colleges turning to online or hybrid education for the fall 2020 semester. In theory, that should free up housing for football players who need to be on or near campus in order to partake in team activities. But dormitory housing in a pandemic raises challenges and potential liabilities for schools. These might seem like low-level concerns, but to university administrators, they are logistical worries that complicate the transferring of players.
School Realignment/Conference Switching:
Another idea that’s been floated, by the likes of the Buckeyes mentioned above, is individual institutions opting to play in other conferences.
Frost told reporters Monday that Nebraska was ready to try other options if the Big Ten season is canceled. “We want to play no matter who it is or where it is,” he said. “We certainly hope it’s in the Big Ten. If it isn’t, I think we’re prepared to look for other options.”
Hopping to another conference is intriguing, but rife with hurdles. One AD said there was “no way in hell” a Big Ten school plays elsewhere this fall.
For starters, conference members are contractually bound to their conferences. Attempting to switch conferences—particularly on the fly after an academic year has already begun—would invite breach of contract and other potential claims.
Take the Big 12. Contractually, Big 12 members are bound until the 22nd century. According to conference bylaws, “each member agrees with the Conference and with each of the other members to remain a member of the Conference for ninety-nine (99) years beginning July 1, 2012.”
Members of the Pac-12 wouldn’t have to wait until the distant future to leave, but the pandemic will (hopefully) be long over before they can exit. That’s because under Pac-12 bylaws, “no member shall deliver a notice of withdrawal” any time prior to August 1, 2024. Any member that attempts to do so, the bylaws warn, will be subject to a lawsuit. To that end, the bylaws forecast the Pac-12 would seek an injunction from a judge to block a withdrawal.
Litigation involving conference membership is nothing new. Over the last 15 years, the Big East, the ACC, the Big 10 and Mountain West have all been involved in lengthy and expensive disputes pertaining to member movement.
There’s also the issue of whether another conference would approve a new member. SEC bylaws, for example, instruct that new membership would only be granted if at least three-fourths of its 14 members—meaning at least 11 members—approve. Given that conference members share revenue, adding a 15th school would mean each piece of the SEC revenue pie would get a little smaller. While a new member would bring new revenue, it might not be enough to convince existing members to a smaller slice.
These issues would likely take time to resolve, something neither schools nor conferences have with the fall season mere weeks away. Perhaps conferences could amend rules to permit members to leave for one pandemic-altered season. However, it’s not immediately clear why conferences would agree to such an arrangement (absent members being paid), and they might worry about the precedent it would set, too.
To make Monday’s developments even more complex, politicians in Washington also started weighing in. President Donald Trump, who has been vocal about the need for sports to return, retweeted the #WeWantToPlay graphic, then added, “Play College Football!” Republican politicians Jim Jordan, Ben Sasse and Kelly Loeffler made similar statements. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, told a local radio station that he was “100% in favor” of schools playing football this fall because it would help the well-being of the athletes.
All this uncertainty has sowed new doubt about the NCAA’s future as the governing force for all of college sports. While the NCAA generally likes to apply its rules evenly across all of its 1,200 members, the richest conferences have spent the last few years accumulating more and more special powers. The pandemic has laid bare just how wide the gap is, both on the field and on the balance sheet.
Over the last few months, NCAA leadership has more or less ceded decision-making to the individual conferences themselves. The lack of organization has created chaos and confusion for schools large and small, fanning the flames of a potential break from the NCAA altogether.
“It’s obvious our current governance structure won’t work in this new space,” an FBS administrator told Sportico. “[I] just don’t see how you modify this old structure to fit new issues.”