The Ivy League announced Wednesday it is suspending its fall sports schedule—including football—due to the coronavirus, the first Division I conference to bow to what is likely to be the reality of the pandemic this fall. The move to halt athletics among the league’s eight member institutions comes as universities around the country have tried to figure out ways to get students safely back on campus and athletes back in the arena, even if there aren’t any fans there to cheer them on. The Ivy League concluded, however, that safely restarting in the fall wasn’t possible given how the pandemic is playing out. The league was the first to cancel its conference basketball tournament in March in the early days of the pandemic, even before the NCAA had made a similar move. That move now looks particularly insightful, and the Ivy League’s latest decision could again offer a glimpse into what may be about to come in college athletic conferences around the country.
“With the information available to us today regarding the continued spread of the virus, we simply do not believe we can create and maintain an environment for intercollegiate athletic competition that meets our requirements for safety and acceptable levels of risk,” the presidents of the league’s universities said in a statement. The Ivy League football season was set to begin on Sept. 19, and the league is not canceling the fall seasons per se, instead suspending them until 2021, when it’s technically feasible—though, in reality, unlikely—sports that typically compete in the fall could be held in the spring season.
The Ivy League obviously operates slightly differently than most other Division I athletic programs in that it doesn’t give scholarships and has typically tried to rein in demands on athletes’ time, despite the growing competitiveness of some of its sports with other non–Ivy League programs. The league also is less dependent on the revenue that comes from the traditional revenue generators of football and basketball; Ivy League football teams participate at the Football Championship Subdivision level, so there aren’t multimillion-dollar TV deals and sponsorship arrangements that buoy the league’s universities. At football powerhouses—like Alabama, Oklahoma, and Ohio State—shutting down the fall football season will be a hard sell both economically and culturally, but it very well could end up being a necessity.
Big-time college football programs have been bringing in players for workouts, and so far the results haven’t been promising—time and again programs have had to shut down as players became infected with the coronavirus. Given all of the talk about restarting professional leagues, it’s easy to forget that it’s still unclear how even those sports are going to operate, and it’s not a foregone conclusion that it will work. The NBA is currently entering its bubble, while Major League Soccer has struggled to keep the coronavirus out of its bubble, postponing early matches. How the NFL will be able to function this fall, at a time when it is widely expected the coronavirus will worsen, remains to be seen. For college athletes, the calculus is obviously different than these pro leagues because the players are not employees—they’re essentially volunteers. It’s one thing for pro athletes to decide it’s worth the risk to maintain their financial well-being; it’s another for 18-year-olds to jeopardize their health for the financial well-being of the university they represent for free.