The Ivy League announced Wednesday that it has ruled out playing all sports this fall, becoming the first Division I conference to say it will not hold sports this upcoming semester because of the coronavirus pandemic.
No decision has been made about winter or spring Ivy sports or whether fall sports could be played in the spring of 2021.
“The campus policies make it impractical for competition to occur, at least through the end of the fall semester,” executive director Robin Harris told ESPN. “That’s why today we’re announcing. Eight campuses have announced their policies for the fall over the past two weeks. When we realized and the presidents realized based on these campus policies that we couldn’t have competition, we wanted to make sure the student-athletes were aware of the outcome.
“It’s certainly the right decision for the Ivy League, but it’s difficult.”
Student-athletes will be allowed to practice on campus, in modified form, Harris said.
Harris said the conference based its decision on the eight campus COVID-19 policies, which were cemented over the past two weeks, and while they vary from school to school, collectively those policies made any fall competition impractical, “at least through the end of the fall semester, because that’s how long the schools anticipate these policies being in place.”
Harris said a good number of the Ivy League schools have placed restrictions on travel for faculty, staff and students — which includes athletes and coaches. Some also have restrictions for visitors, stringent social distancing policies and limitations on the sizes of group gatherings.
Harris said those factors might not influence other conferences as they, too, navigate their way through the coronavirus pandemic.
“Schools have to evaluate what’s right for them,” she said. “For us, it came down to campus policies. Our athletic directors have been working very hard modeling different options, looking at different ways we can conduct athletics in the fall, and ultimately, as more and more campuses developed their policies that didn’t allow for competition, that led to our decision. That may not be the same at other schools in other conferences.”
Harris said she can’t put a timeline on when competition might resume in her conference.
“… I think what has to happen is we have to see a change in greater containment of the spread of the virus so it’s safer, and that would then lead to a change in our campus policy,” she said. “We hope that as that happens, we will be able to continue to phase in athletics and ultimately get back to having competition, but we have to get to the point where the virus is not as big of a safety risk as it is for our students, the campus community and our country. I can’t put a time frame on it.”
Harris said that while the conference and its schools have undergone budget cuts, the financial realities of Wednesday’s decision are still unknown.
“For us, this was really about policies and not finances,” she said. “We’re impacted financially by this decision, there’s no question, but at the end of the day it’s about health and safety and consistency with campus policies. Financially, this is definitely going to be a hit for our schools and our office, but it didn’t factor into this decision. It really hasn’t been part of the equation.”
This was a highly anticipated decision throughout the world of college athletics, as athletic directors and commissioners at every level told ESPN this week they would be monitoring the news out of Princeton, New Jersey.
The Ivy League’s move now begs the question who — if anyone — will follow?
“We certainly are watching closely as Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA are doing things, and likewise we’ve certainly got to keep a close eye on what other colleagues in other conferences are doing,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said, “but their circumstances are a little different than ours. Their locations are in places that are different than ours. We’re certainly going to pay attention to it, but I don’t know that it’s determinative, necessarily.”
While the Ivy League’s decision was a harsh reminder that the impact of the virus continues to wreak havoc on college athletic programs and their budgets, it’s not the first time the prestigious group of universities was the first to bring its sports to a screeching halt because of it.
On March 10, Ivy League presidents decided to cancel men’s and women’s basketball tournaments because of the pandemic. Within 48 hours, Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the NBA suspended its season and all NCAA sports were halted.
College football, though, presents an entirely different set of circumstances and budgets for the FBS conferences to consider.
While it’s certainly possible the Power 5 conferences could ultimately reach the same conclusion, it’s unlikely they’re ready to say it now. Multiple decision-makers have told ESPN that late July is the tentative benchmark to reevaluate if the college football season can start on time — or at all — and what it might look like.
“There are important decisions to be made in the coming weeks and by late July there should be more clarity about the fall season,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement to ESPN on Monday. “In the meantime, our athletics programs will continue to effectively manage the health and safety of our student-athletes as they continue voluntary activities on their respective campuses.”
There’s no question the Ivy League could — and probably will — influence other FCS leagues as they grapple with the costs of repeatedly testing student-athletes for the coronavirus. It’s arguably an easier decision to make at that level because the FCS sports receive institutional funding and support, so while an athletic department might feel the economic crunch the university is experiencing, it isn’t dependent on college football or an accompanying TV contract to support its other sports.
“If it costs too much to maintain a healthy environment at our institutions and our communities, then we don’t play sports or we don’t return students to campus,” Patriot League commissioner Jennifer Heppel said. “We’re not going to compromise health and safety due to a football guarantee. That’s crazy. If we can’t do it safely, we’re not going to do it.”
It’s a mantra that has been repeated at every level, but while confidence has been waning with a recent surge in cases across the country, there also is an underlying sense that if FBS-level schools can play, they will.
“We haven’t been told by public health officials or our local doctors or our scientific consultants that we should stop doing what we’re doing,” Bowlsby said. “My feeling is you just keep putting one foot in front of the other until you’re advised it’s a bad idea. When we get that advice, obviously the safety, health and well-being of our student-athletes and staff is first. When we’re told, ‘This just isn’t going to work out,’ obviously nobody is going to be resisting that … but they haven’t said that to us yet.”