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July 13, 2020

Keeping up with the Conferences | A Glimpse at Rapid Changes in College Sports

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Will there be a fall season? What will happen in the spring? Who is calling the shots here? These questions seem to be on the minds of all of us who follow college sports, and unless you’re invested in the Ivy League, there’s no definitive answer right now. But in Division 1 athletics, one certainty is that the conferences—not the NCAA—are dictating what college sports will look like in the near future. Although the obvious reasoning is that the fall season should be cancelled due to concerns about the coronavirus, with infection numbers rapidly rising, some hospitals running out of ventilators, and big-name professional athletes opting out of the 2020 season, plenty of conference commissioners are still pushing for a fall football season (and the accompanying revenue). In the middle of all this uncertainty, here is what we know so far. 

HBCUs: Although historically Black colleges and universities are not an athletic conference in and of themselves, Morehouse College was the first Division 1 university to cancel its fall season on June 26th. However, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which houses most of the HBCUs in the United States, has yet to make a statement. The SIAC did cancel spring sports back on March 12th, the same day the NCAA cancelled spring championships, so we might see a similar move from smaller conferences as the summer progresses (and they might take leads from the Power Fives, as mid-major schools are bracing for lost revenue, too). Morehouse did not indicate if their fall sports would be pushed to the spring, and said that outcomes for winter and spring sports would be forthcoming. 

Ivy League: Perhaps the biggest move across Division 1 athletics so far came on July 9th, when the Ivy League cancelled its fall season, a decision that some have said will cause a domino effect across the NCAA. It is worth noting that the Ivy League was the first Division 1 conference to cancel spring championships back on March 11th, and the rest of Division 1, including the NCAA itself, quickly followed. We could see a similar situation pan out before football season begins in September. 

Big Ten: On July 9th, the Big Ten conference announced it would move to an in-conference-only competition schedule “if the Conference is able to participate in fall sports,” making it the first Power Five conference to alter its fall season in light of COVID-19 risks. The Big Ten justified its decision in a statement, which read, in part: “by limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions, the Conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic.” Its statement also said that summer practices are now considered voluntary, and athletes will not risk losing scholarships should they decide to sit out practices and games due to COVID concerns, even though it’s technically still legal for coaches to pull scholarships for virtually any reason under NCAA guidelines.  

PAC-12: On July 10th, the PAC-12 followed in the steps of the Big Ten and moved to an in-conference-only competition schedule for all fall sports. The PAC-12 has also halted all mandatory athletic activities, is proposing a delayed start to fall sports, and, like the Big Ten, said the conference will honor athletic scholarships should athletes decide to sit things out. The PAC-12 says it will provide a detailed update on its schedule no later than July 31st.

SEC: The SEC has reportedly developed nearly 20 contingency plans for the fall season, but has been largely silent over the course of the summer. After the Ivy League cancelled fall sports, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told ESPN radio that “I’ve been optimistic, but I’m prepared that optimism is not reality.” All 14 of the SEC’s athletic directors will meet on Monday, July 14th in Birmingham, Alabama, to discuss the conference’s scheduling plans for fall sports. 

ACC: On July 10th, ACC commissioner John Swofford said that the conference “has prepared numerous scenarios related to the fall athletics season,” and anticipates a decision in late July.

Big 12: The Big 12 hasn’t released a statement yet, but last week, commissioner Bob Bowlsby told ESPN that the Big 12 is “kind of on the same schedule” as the ACC in terms of making an announcement. 

The NCAA: On July 9th, the NCAA tweeted a statement that read in full: “As the COVID -19 pandemic continues to impact college sports nationally, the NCAA supports its members as they make important decisions based on their specific circumstances and the best interest of college athletes’ health and well-being.”

The bottom line is that, by and large, nobody really knows what fall sports will look like as of now, and it’s unclear how the spring season will pan out as well. But it’s clear that those of us who are looking for updates are going to have to take cues from the conferences, not the NCAA, for the most up-to-date information and scheduling adjustments. 

UPDATE: Hours after this story was published, the Patriot League also canceled its fall season, and is considering moving fall sports to the spring season. 

For more NCAA updates, follow Katie Lever on Twitter/Instagram: @leverfever

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