This email about COVID-19 might already be out of date but please read it anyway
How on earth do we even start to wrap our heads around the massive implications of this story?
Good morning! Thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
On Wednesday morning, I pitched calling on the NCAA to play the NCAA Tournament in empty gyms to my editors at SB Nation. I wrote this post that went up a little after noon, God’s Time Zone (CST, of course). A few hours later, the NCAA pulled the trigger, and now, at 8:30 PM CST, as I write this, almost every major conference has done the same for their tournaments, if not beyond. Hell, the NBA went out and suspended the whole dang season. There will probably be other cancelations or changes after I schedule this and close my laptop for a few hours.
To say that this coronavirus story is moving quickly would be a massive understatement. By the time you read this email, it’s probable that other sporting events will be canceled or moved to empty arenas. Schedules will change. Campuses will continue to close. It’s hard to imagine any aspect of higher education, including athletics, that won’t be touched in some way. It’s getting harder to imagine any part of American society that won’t be impacted.
Part of what makes all of this so overwhelming to think about, besides the fact that it’s a dang global pandemic that could be deadly to anybody with a compromised immune system, is that it feels so new. I can’t recall anything close to this in my lifetime. Disease outbreaks haven’t really caused widespread athletic disruptions in decades.
Most of the problems and arguments in college sports are super old, and super regular. The collective “We” freaks out over the definition of amateurism about once a decade, at least. The place of college sports in higher education, the concept of competitive balance, the financial sustainability of the entire enterprise, concerns over player safety and workload…those are all important discussions to keep having, but we’ve also been having them for a hundred fifty years. There’s precedent to draw from.
Outside of the Spanish Flu, it doesn’t seem like we have much to go by here…and society, and college athletics, are a teensy bit different.
In that spirit, reading this story has been just another explicit reminder of how much I just do not know. I do not know exactly what the economic implications of a worldwide slowdown might be, although I can assume they may significantly damage some sports-aligned companies. I don’t know much about biology, and it’s hard for me to really evaluate the veracity of competing projections of how COVID-19 might spread. I don’t know about the insurance policies various schools might have (although I’ve filed a bunch of FOIAs). I don’t know exactly how widespread cancelations might impact distance learning pedagogy. The more I read, the more I realize I don’t know.
I am trying to help advance some of those conversations in this newsletter. I’ll do my best to try and find some of those answers, given my limited newsgathering resources and average cognitive horsepower. I hope that you, my educated, interesting and interested readers, may help in that process.
Let’s quickly talk about something we do know.
A lot of stuff beyond basketball is getting canceled, including a lot of college football things
Not every FBS program makes a big deal out of spring football, or a Spring Game. For the biggest programs in the Big Ten or SEC, like Ohio State, Georiga and Alabama, the Spring Game is a significant recruiting event, and a chance for fans to come to the stadium that might not be able to afford the trip at regular prices. For lots of other programs, the game isn’t really a game at all, but a controlled scrimmage or practice that might attract a few thousand curious fans.
Programs that fit into both groups have already canceled their spring games.
Ohio State is going a step further, and hopping off the recruiting trail entirely. Michigan is doing the same:
Are these drastic moves, given how much money Ohio State spends on recruiting, and how critically important recruiting is to the success of the program? Sure. But it’s hard to argue that it’s too dangerous for Ohio State students to go to regular ol’ class, and too dangerous for Ohio State academic or administrative personnel to travel, but not too dangerous for Ohio State’s tight ends coach to fly all across the country, visiting high schools.
If travel is too dangerous, and we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief that college football is a peer enterprise of the rest of the university, then recruiting is too dangerous. I imagine conference commissioners and leaders will need to come out with uniform policies about the recruiting calendar, to help give schools the wiggle room to more easily do the right thing, which is getting off the road.
It’s less clear to me how many schools will allow their football teams to even practice during the spring. The Ivy League, for example, canceled their entire dang spring sports season, including practices. I think that approach, while drastic, is at least consistent with any school deciding to cancel classes, or at least move all instruction online.
Assuming this outbreak gets under control in say, eight weeks, I wonder if the NCAA will allow for a change in the calendar that would allow for more structured summer practices? I imagine there could be a convincing argument that while closing down practices and recruiting travel now is in the best interest in public safety, trying to play a 2020 college football season with minimally organized team practices before late summer might also be a health risk.
If nothing else, whenever athletic leaders are able to take a breath and look beyond immediate disruptions, I’d wager a slew of exceptions will need to happen. If schools cancel classes en masse or have difficulty grading, does the NCAA give APR waivers en masse? For players whose spring sports seasons get canceled, either by their leagues or the NCAA, will they get additional eligibility? Can the recruiting calendar be altered to make sure kids get enough chances to take official visits?
I guess there’s still more “stuff we don’t know” rather than stuff we do.
For now, I’d expect a lot more postponements and cancelations, from college football to baseball to lacrosse, and maybe more. If we’re lucky and we all wash our dang hands, hopefully, we’re able to get a handle on COVID-19, avoid widespread illness or worse, loss of life, and can figure out how to pick up the pieces of a lost month.
I’m not sure I want to spend too much more time thinking about what happens if we’re not lucky.
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