SportsPulse: From high school Friday night lights to Monday Night Football football is an engrained part of American culture and our fall sports calendars. What would a fall without it do to the American sports psyche?
Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee saw what happened Saturday in the Mid-American Conference, and he believes it’s only the beginning of the most chaotic lead-up to a college football season in history.
In a historic move, MAC presidents voted unanimously to cancel football in the conference in 2020, pushing over a massive domino that could give other FBS conferences the impetus to follow suit, as university leaders grapple with how to safely hold a season during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s the first time the MAC has canceled a football season since the league’s inception in 1946. The conference joins Connecticut as FBS programs that won’t play this fall.
“It wouldn’t shock me if some followed suit,” Wetherbee said. “Actually, I would be surprised if some didn’t.”
The MAC hopes to move all fall sports, including football, to the spring, and there’s a growing belief other conferences — particularly in the Group of 5 — will try to do the same.Or perhaps even in the Big Ten, where conference commissioner Kevin Warren also is favoring a spring season, sources told the Free Press on Saturday.
Neither Wetherbee nor Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard could speculate on what a spring season might look like. There are hurdles to clear, including the prospect of playing two seasons in one year, and there’s no guarantee a COVID-19 vaccine will be readily available by that time.
“It depends on who is staying in the fall and how big of a schedule you can have and what does that do for the fall in the following year,” Wetherbee said. “Those are all things we’ve got to have discussions about.”
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MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher was adamant Saturday the conference’s decision was about health and safety, rather than money. “It’s a health and well-being decision,” he said. “And that’s what it will continue to be as we move forward.”
As Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier, reportedly at the forefront of the MAC’s push to cancel fall sports, told the Chicago Tribune: “COVID has spoken,” and sports shouldn’t be played until a vaccine is available, he said.
But the financial hardships in the conference shouldn’t be overlooked.
With schools already facing steep declines from factors such as declining enrollment and the projected fallout from playing games without fans, the cancellation of almost all nonconference games against the Power Five — particularly the Big Ten and SEC — made the MAC’s decision suddenly easier.
The MAC already wasn’t going to receive millions in away-game payouts for the canceled games, with Kent State ($5M), Buffalo ($2.7M) and Bowling Green ($2.2M) taking some of the heaviest hits among Group of Five schools, and Central Michigan ($2.15M), Eastern Michigan ($1.6M) and Western Michigan ($1.175M) not far behind, according to data provided by USA TODAY Sports.
“If you told me in March we’d be here today, I would have never believed it,” Steinbrecher said. He also added: “This decision isn’t a financial decision.”
Central Michigan did not make departing athletic director Michael Alford available to reporters on Saturday, instead referring the Free Press to a statement on its website.
Beauregard said the conference was committed to playing the season safely, including following the NCAA’s recommendation to test football players within 72 hours of each game. But she also admitted there were expected hurdles.
“We were going to commit resources if we were going to put our athletes and staff out there,” she said on a conference call. “Our biggest concern wasn’t the financial piece, but are we going to be able to access that and do that? To be able to keep up with results before games and timeline to ensure safety.”
As Wetherbee pointed out, testing negative for COVID-19 doesn’t necessarily mean a player isn’t spreading the virus. The test, he explained, is a timestamp, not a foolproof resolution. What happens, then, when an inevitable outbreak does occur?
“What people don’t realize is it’s only as good as the minute you took it,” he said. “So you take the test and you walk out and grab something to go somewhere, contract it and come back to have practice for two days. You may still (test) negative, but you didn’t even know that you were actually positive.”
Roughly 2,100 student-athletes were impacted by Saturday’s decision, including athletes from the other fall sports: men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, football, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball. Already across the country, some players were becoming anxious about competing, including the dozens of football players who already have opted out of the 2020 season.
The fallout is expected to continue, especially in football. Power Five programs, only hours after the MAC’s announcement, were already trying to poach top players from the 12-team conference, using a fall season as an incentive to transfer, according to multiple reports.
“We’ll just have to see where that goes,” Steinbrecher said. “We’re trying to do everything we can in the best interest of our student-athletes. I hope, based on my interactions with (our players) over the year, that they’re having positive experiences, and as a result of that, they’ll continue to be active participants where they’re at.
“But I won’t care to predict what that holds.”
What is predictable, at least according to Wetherbee and Beauregard, is that the MAC won’t be the only FBS conference not playing college football in the fall.
“It’s their own decisions, their own choices. Everyone has to make them for their own reasons, so we made it for us,” Beauregard said. “I don’t really want to speculate on other decisions that the leagues are going to make.
“I would tell you that I know there are conversations going on.”
Contributing: Steve Berkowitz