University Presidents, COVID-19, and the Possibility of a Fall Season
Late on Sunday evening, ESPN broke the story that the commissioners of the Power 5 conferences held an emergency meeting to discuss cancelling fall sports due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Then on Monday, August 10th the Detroit Free Press reported that the Big Ten’s respective university presidents officially voted to scrap that conference’s entire season by a vote of 12-2. Conflicting reports then surfaced alleging that this vote did not happen.
Regardless, the momentum for cancelling the season continues to grow. In early July, the Ivy League cancelled all fall sports. On August 8, the Mid-American Conference (MAC) became the first FBS conference to pull the plug on football in Fall 2020. The dominoes began to fall after that. ESPN reported that “a vast majority of Big Ten presidents have indicated that they would vote to postpone football season, hopefully to the spring” and that “several sources have told ESPN... that the postponement or cancellation of the football season seems inevitable.” Among the remaining conferences, the Pac-12 appears more amenable to cancelling the season outright, whereas the ACC, Big 12, and SEC continue to hold out hope for the possibility of successfully pulling off sports this fall.
For the casual fan, this is certainly a confusing scenario. Why were university presidents making this decision, instead of the coaches and athletic directors?
There are a variety of different actors here: conference commissioners, head football coaches, athletic directors, and university presidents all seemingly wield various levels of influence in determining whether or not there will be a college football season. Many blame the national media for supposedly forcing the hand of decision-makers by reporting endlessly on COVID-19 and its effect on college athletics.
Hopefully, this piece is able to clear some of that up and get past some of the noise in the media and on Twitter in explaining why university presidents ultimately have to be the ones making these decisions.
“The Buck Stops Here”
President Harry S. Truman famously kept a wooden sign on his Oval Office desk that read “The Buck Stops Here,” a playful reminder that the President of the United States assumed the full and total responsibility for all decisions made in his name. University presidents have this same responsibility to their respective institutions, which is why they have an outsized role in what they would normally delegate to their athletic director. And now, university presidents are playing an outsized role in the decision to play collegiate sports in the Fall.
In normal times, Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock handles nearly every aspect of Virginia Tech athletics, including scheduling, high-level staff hiring, and managing the relationship with the ACC conference and its member programs. This includes football. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into all of this. Recall the beginning of conference tournament play for NCAA Division I basketball. After Duke unilaterally ended its own season, the rest of the ACC followed suit. The Big Ten bizarrely tried to play a round of games before ending their tournament with no winner. Within days, the NCAA announced it would not hold the national tournament at all, ending the 2019-2020 season without crowning a national champion.
Even months into the pandemic, people are still largely making knee-jerk reactions to COVID-19. The MLB, NBA, and NHL have begun truncated seasons or tournaments, to varying degrees of success. The NFL is planning to pursue a full season after the NFL Player’s Union (NFLPA) and the NFL agreed to a variety of changes to the collective bargaining agreement in light of the pandemic.
It is significantly easier to negotiate between professional players – represented by a union – and the 32 owners and the NFL organization than it is between the NCAA, ten FBS conferences, and 130 FBS colleges and universities. NFL teams all largely run the same way, and are largely only answerable to the general manager and the team’s owner. The NFL is much more centralized than the NCAA.
Further – and this is a big point – the NFL and its teams exist solely to play football. Despite the large revenue brought in by college football among the Power 5 teams, universities do not exist solely to field athletic teams. Casual fans can sometimes forget this. The university’s leadership (president, board of advisors, etc.) have considerations well outside of their university’s athletic department, unlike athletic directors and head coaches.
And that is where liability comes in.
The worst-case scenario for any university this Fall is that they pursue a full football season, only to have a player contract an aggressive strain of COVID-19 and die. For a university, this is a catastrophe and we have an example of what the fallout would look like: The University of Maryland after the death of Jordan McNair.
Jordan McNair was an offensive lineman playing for the Maryland Terrapins football. During a May 2018 practice, McNair collapsed with heat stroke. Medical staff rushed him to the hospital, but he eventually died on June 18. Soon, the dominoes began to fall. The university hired a South Carolina-based firm to conduct a full review of the Terrapins football program. After a back-and-forth with the university’s Board of Regents, university president Wallace Loh fired head coach DJ Durkin on October 31. On the same day, President Loh announced that he would also resign effective June 2019.
While the final report cited the program’s toxic culture as the main factor for the dismissal of the coach and resignation of the president, the scenario could repeat itself this fall if a university pursues a full season and a student-athlete contracts COVID-19 and dies. The result will inevitably be the same. The national and local media will demand answers from the university – why did they pursue fall sports when they knew the risks associated with COVID-19? The university itself would likely immediately suspend its own season, which ripples throughout the rest of the conference.
Let me get this out of the way: I personally want college football to happen this Fall. But from the perspective of the university president, it is easy to see why many schools will choose to forgo fall athletics.
The buck stops at the university president’s desk. At the end of the day, the university is liable for what happens to its players. Contract lawyers argue that the “liability waivers” some universities have had players sign would not hold up in court against the reality of a dead player.
Yes, yes, irony abounds. Players have a significantly greater chance of dying from CTE than the long-term effects of COVID-19. As the Sons’ own Billy Ray Mitchell articulated on Twitter, the level of care that college athletes at a Power 5 program like Virginia Tech receive is likely significantly greater than what they receive at home. Players will be constantly tested, and the program will be able to quickly isolate and quarantine players with positive test results. It is also worth mentioning the nature of football, where players compete despite the possibility of a multi-week injury lurking after every snap. A positive COVID-19 diagnosis and subsequent two-week recovery period stacks up to numerous other physical injuries that avail college football athletes every single season. The players – including many Hokies - are vocal on Twitter that they want to play. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence has been especially vocal, using his massive platform to advocate for the ability to play this fall.
But for better or worse, the national microscope is on universities that elect to play sports this fall. Any slip-up, such as a Miami Marlins-level team-wide outbreak, will be met with “I told you so” and “See what happened” tweets and columns from across the sports media landscape. In the unlikely event that a player contracted COVID-19 and died, the university would immediately be in crisis mode. A lawsuit from the player’s family would carry firm legal standing and it is not clear that athletic waivers would protect the university from all liability. There would be pressure from both within and outside the university community to remove the head coach, athletic director, and even the university president.
While the university presidents may seemingly be making these decisions at the behest of the Twitter mob and at the prodding of the national sports media, it is important to understand that that is not the full picture. At universities, the buck stops at the university president’s desk. Even the most hands-off president has to take responsibility for the health of their student athletes. Everyone, including the presidents, wants college football to resume this Fall. The university president’s job is not to win football games or even to raise money for athletics – it is ultimately to protect the university and create conditions for long-term success across a variety of endeavors.
Cancelling the fall season would be unfortunate. University presidents will have to answer for that decision. Players, coaches, athletic boosters, and even the Board that hires the president may be furious. But for some presidents, the risk associated with playing a full Fall football season may be too great to overcome. In the end, each of the 130 FBS presidents has a choice to make – a choice they will make in the best interests of the universities they serve.