College Football Season Teeters on the Brink

The concept of taking part in faculty sports activities this fall has felt iffy all alongside, like assembling an enormous and unwieldy Jenga tower of fine intentions and questionable hopes.

Now, it’s teetering with every bit of reports, with this week’s amongst the most seismic in imperiling having a season in any respect.

The Ivy League shut down sports activities till at the very least Jan. 1. Ohio State and North Carolina every had sufficient constructive coronavirus circumstances amongst the few athletes on campus that they suspended summer time exercises. And the Big Ten Conference soberly introduced that the majority of its fall sports activities, together with soccer, would play solely league video games — in the event that they performed in any respect. The Pac-12 Conference did the similar Friday.

One by one the items are eliminated. The tower sways. When will the entire construction come crashing down?

Most are jury-rigging plans to educate online, some entirely. Budgets are in tatters. Students are in limbo. Faculty are torn by the bad options of teaching in person during a pandemic and educating through computer screens. Support workers and others linked to campuses wait, but each day seems to make the view murkier.

Colleges, and the towns that support and rely on them, are microcosms of the nation’s anxiety and uncertainty. They face a grudge match between health and economics. The safest option is to keep campuses closed. That might mean economic devastation to colleges and their communities. Is there middle ground?

Now throw athletics into the caldron. Unlike most professional sports leagues, several of which are already struggling to cocoon themselves in tightly monitored, self-described bubbles without getting people sick, there is no way to separate college sports from college environments or society at large.

Even small outbreaks could spread like wildfires into a forest.

So far, more than 3.1 million Americans have been diagnosed with Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and 133,000 have died. On Wednesday, the day that the Ivy League canceled fall sports, nearly 60,000 new cases were reported in the United States, a new high.

Some of those were college athletes. Through Wednesday, at least 426 had tested positive for the coronavirus among roughly 50 Division I programs, but the number of cases is likely much higher. About half of American universities either did not respond to requests for testing results from The New York Times, or declined to provide numbers, under the auspices of protecting the privacy of student-athletes.

Ohio State, in suspending its off-season workout programs this week, did not reveal how many students tested positive. It only said that the shutdown impacted seven sports, including football.

Contingency plans for the football season are being made. It is a given, by now, that there may be no fans in the stands. Seasons might be reduced in scope or pushed to spring, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott conceded earlier this month. The Big Ten’s move to conference-only games is a half step toward canceling.

The hope is to salvage something. But even if seasons start, outbreaks could end them suddenly, just as they did basketball tournaments and spring sports.

The N.C.A.A., which gave Americans a splash-in-the-face wake-up call when it called off its basketball tournaments last March, may not react with such sweeping gusto this time.

“As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to impact college sports nationally, the N.C.A.A. supports its members as they make important decisions based on their specific circumstances and in the best interest of college athletes’ health and well-being,” it said in a statement on Thursday.

But could the Pac-12 shutter while the Big Ten plays on? Or will one major conference’s decision start the domino chain?

Most expect answers by the end of July.

“I don’t like the trends out there right now, with the numbers and virus increases you see across the country,” Tom Wistrcill, commissioner of the Big Sky Conference, told the Bozeman (Mont.) Daily Chronicle. He estimated the odds for fall sports at 50-50.

Such a half-empty analysis would have seemed unlikely back in March. Leagues like the N.B.A. and Major League Baseball, along with most Americans, considered the virus a passing storm to wait out.

Sports did their part. They sheltered in place. No one can blame the sports world for the broad outbreak or the continued surges through the summer. Not yet.

Billy Witz and Lauryn Higgins contributed reporting.

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