Over the weekend, reports percolated that major college football conferences, led by the Pac-12 and Big Ten, were on the verge of canceling their seasons over coronavirus safety concerns. These reports precipitated pushback from both players and coaches (who believe they’re capable of taking enough precautions to prevent outbreaks) and right-wing politicians (who object to any large-scale safety measures being taken, by anyone, on account of COVID-19). On Tuesday afternoon, the Big Ten announced that its university presidents have voted, in something of a compromise, to postpone all fall sports, including football, while considering “the possibility of competition in the spring.” The Pac-12 has reportedly come to a similar decision.
While there’s been speculation that some schools could work around these cancellations by defecting temporarily to other conferences, doing so would require them to break contracts, and athletic directors at both Ohio State and Michigan—the Big Ten’s most high-profile programs—have already issued statements supporting the postponement. (This year will be the first since 1917 that Ohio State and Michigan do not play a football game.)
The Big Ten and Pac-12’s decisions were preceded by similar moves by smaller conferences, leaving the Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference, and Southeastern Conference as the only notable groups that have not yet announced their plans for the fall. Every school in those three conferences (save for the ACC’s Boston College, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse, and the Big 12’s Iowa State, Kansas, and Kansas State) is in the South. (Also: Notre Dame, which is not a member of a football conference, is taking part in the ACC’s schedule for this season.)* While it’s possible that these leagues could take after their state governments and choose to plow through the pandemic, a “college football season” can’t really have taken place if roughly 40 percent of its premier teams don’t participate; Ohio State, in particular, was a leading national championship contender. Southern athletic directors and school presidents will also now have to consider the medical, legal, and public relations implications of analogous institutions having decided that COVID-19, and in particular the lingering inflammatory effects it appears to have on the hearts of some individuals who contract it, presents an unacceptable and potentially fatal risk to athletes. (The Big 12 is, reportedly, still on the fence, with the SEC reportedly waiting to see what the Big 12 decides.) (Update, Aug. 11, 2020, at 6 p.m.: The ACC and SEC have issued statements asserting that they will, for now, proceed with their seasons.)
There are two factors weighing against the possibility of football (and other college sports) happening in the spring: The coronavirus could still be in heavy circulation on campuses, and the sizable set of “amateur” players who intend to play pro football in 2021 may want to avoid risking injury in the immediate run-up to (or even potentially after) the spring NFL Draft. On the other hand: A vaccine could conceivably be approved for distribution in the U.S. by the end of 2020, and the NFL could delay its draft to accommodate a spring NCAA schedule. Universities will also be out an enormous amount of money without football TV revenue, which could at least in part be recouped by a spring season. And if schools are willing to admit that football players are not normal students—an entire-business-model-sized if, to be sure—the fall and winter months provide time to set up individual team isolation bubbles from which competitions could be more safely launched.
As of now, the NFL still plans to attempt its own season. For disappointed college fans who prefer a brand of football that places a heavy emphasis on regionalism and tradition, every major domestic European soccer league—the leagues in the countries whose leaders took the coronavirus seriously enough to nearly eradicate it months ago, while the richest country in the world bumbled onward, infected and dying and losing more and more elements of “normal” life by the minute—is scheduled to resume play in September.
Correction, Aug. 13, 2020: This piece originally omitted Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, and Notre Dame from the list of major-conference football programs outside the South that are still planning to play a fall season.