The earth-shattering announcements to postpone the 2020 college football seasons by B1G Conference Presidents and Pac-12 Conference Presidents on August 11th certainly puts the entire collegiate football season at risk. It was a surprising decision when you consider that the B1G conference released their 2020 conference-only game schedule on August 5th. The obvious question is what drastic event happened between August 5th and August 11th to cause the conference Presidents to overrule the B1G Commissioner and all the conference Athletic Directors (AD) resulting in the decision to postpone the season? Six days later and we see a massive 180 degree turn. A quick Google search uncovered no obvious headlines of a game changing COVID-19 event to trigger a sudden reversal.
The B1G Presidents provided one key justification for their change of heart, in the form of Myocarditis. This is a condition that involves the inflammation of the heart muscle. It can reduce the heart’s ability to pump causing a rapid or abnormal heartbeat. CBS Sports Daniel Dodd reported that 15 B1G players have been left with Myocarditis after contracting COVID-19 according to a high ranking source in the B1G. I am not saying this is a trivial challenge. Going into the season having multiple players dealing with a long term heart issue is a big deal. When was this discovered? If it was in the last six days, it makes one wonder how closely monitored the COVID-19 was by the highest levels of leadership in the B1G Conference. If it was not revealed to the Presidents until the last few days, one would expect various ADs or the Commissioner himself to be censured or even terminated. At this point, no such action has been taken.
Might there be other reasons the Presidents cancelled the season? Human behavior is complex. Organizational behavior can be even more confounding as the culture of the organization throws additional wrinkles into the mix. In the majority of instances, there is rarely only one driving motivation that fuels human behavior and the same can be said of organization behavior. In the interest of trying to figure out what factors affected this decision, I put together this list of what else could have influenced this momentous decision. They are listed below in no particular order.
Possible Motivations of Conference Presidents
Motivation #1 - Players “Union” Movement
Players were actively pushing back on risking their health by playing football during the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been rumblings of discussions taking place about a players union or some other football players organization being formed. We saw Washington State cut players who issued a set of demands to play this season. With players and their on-field skills being at the heart of a product that is marketed to generate over a billion dollars of revenue annually, the pandemic provided the players more leverage than they’ve ever had before.
The response to the players’ actions on Twitter by sports fans was predictably anti-player. These players were accused of trying to exploit the pandemic over the weekend across social media. They were viewed as a potentially lethal obstacle to a college football season that was the most anticipated in decades – largely due to the massive and far reaching effects of the pandemic across society. The players were in a very bad spot from a public relations standpoint. At least they were - until the B1G and Pac-12 Conference Presidents pulled the plug on the season. Those who were once (only hours prior) a potential obstacle to the upcoming season were suddenly off the hook. Players who were called “entitled babies” by many sports fans now paled in comparison to the Presidents who actually “attempted to murder” the college football season. In less than a day, those collegiate players went from being called “whiners” and “spoiled brats” to being just another group of victims at the hands of the real bad guys – the elitist intellectuals who were out of touch with the public in general and athletics in general – the B1G and Pac-12 Conference Presidents.
The decision to play football would force a discussion and formal reformation of the definition of amateur sports. This would need to be done by no later than October, assuming that the B1G would have instead decided to delay the season kick off for a month. The task of redefining collegiate amateurism in a very short window is truly daunting. If one adds in the leverage provided to the players due to the stopwatch quickly ticking towards deadline represented by the start of the season, the Presidents were at a huge disadvantage. Knowing the players would want a deal prior to playing and could effectively stop everything at the last moment if they didn’t get what they wanted, the Presidents may have preferred to take back control of the situation. Stop the season, let the pandemic pass and then force the status quo to be maintained. One has to admit there are advantages to postponing the season here.
Motivation #2 - Play for Time
Another reason is logical, though admittedly much less dramatic. While it may take years to find a vaccine, we’ve never had a time where literally the whole scientific world is working to defeat a single disease. With today’s computing power and with worldwide human efforts, maybe a vaccine is closer than any past experiences would indicate. Presidents of such prestigious universities would likely have much more access to this knowledge than the average fan or even the average corporate CEO.
There is a major risk of starting the season and having to end it early. One could argue that would surely kill any chances for a successful winter sport season which would end men’s basketball, the other revenue sport that pays athletic department bills. One can look back to the 1918 collegiate football season that was interrupted by the Spanish Flu. The Presidents may have decided to “bet on science” and try to have both a football and basketball season in the Spring of 2021. This is a reasonable course of action, but should be explained as such.
Motivation #3 - Maximize the Revenue Stream
The Presidents would undoubtedly realize the importance of football as a revenue provider for the entire athletic department. This leads to another reason to “bet on science” – to maximize profits and minimize losses. The numbers will not add up for athletic departments if the football season is played in the fall with stadiums only half full (or less). It is critical to remember that universities across the country, along with the states that fund them, are dealing with massive budget shortfalls due to the effects of COVID-19 on the economy. Having football hamstrung in its ability to pay the bills for the athletic department may not be palatable to university Presidents. It’s even worse when you consider deficits across most of the academic departments as well. Why not “bet on science” for a vaccine, meaning that 80,000 seat stadiums will be full in the spring as opposed to at 40,000 capacity or even less in the fall? This argument is yet another for delaying the start of the season to the Spring 2021 semester. It also has it's own risks.
Motivation #4 - Dodging Flu Season
In 1918, the Spanish Flu hit in the spring and came back even stronger in the fall. At this point, COVID-19 has not been nearly the killer that Spanish Flu was. We should all be thankful for that fact. While not the Spanish Flu, it might be nearly impossible to play a football season in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic – especially if the pandemic was running side-by-side with a nasty flu season. The Presidents may be trying to buy time to get past the worst of the flu season and use time in hopes that the spring will reduce the chances of the flu complicating the situation. The logistics of a college football season with teams having multiple cancellations due to the availability of ill student athletes is considerable. The optics are worse, especially if someone were to be seriously compromised by COVID-19 or even die from the pandemic. This may be extreme in the eyes of some but it does make a case for postponing to the spring. We also must remember that coaches are potential victims too. Many legendary coaches are nearing 70. They would also be at risk, along with their players.
Motivation #5 - Academics over Athletics
We all feel that some university Presidents don’t really care about athletics. The university’s first mission is to educate, although some institutions seem to have mixed this up with a focus on research and pushing faculty to get published. There are Presidents and faculty members who look at athletics as a distraction to deal with during a pandemic. Even in the best of times, athletics are simply tolerated. This quick decision to postpone the football season may contain in it a simple act of redefining priorities by individuals who don’t value athletics as much as the American sports fan does.
Opportunists are everywhere and at every level of any organization. This could be the moment that Presidents have used as a catalyst to lessen the influence of athletics and raise the profile of academics. There are many faculty members who’ve longed to do this and this might be the best opportunity to turn the tables. No one would dare say this publicly. One wonders if this idea could be there in the back of more than one university President mind.
Motivation #6 - Political Motivations
We’re also hearing a chorus of voices accuse the university Presidents of embracing the “liberal agenda” alleging that the Presidents are postponing the season to add to the negative effects of the pandemic. Under this theory, this action will contribute towards President Trump losing in the November election. I confess that I don’t personally know any of the Presidents making this decision. They may very well all be liberals. Or not. Each of us will have to speculate on this possible motivation based on our own biases. Speculation is our only choice since the vast majority of fans don’t know any of the Presidents making these decisions.
I have an easier time envisioning a scenario that the university Presidents who run state schools are being pressured by their state governors to act (one way or the other). It is possible that Democratic governors feel the risk of having a college season is too high. Republicans governors may feel the opposite way. These same Governors may also have political party-based motivations as well. Admittedly, this theory is similarly hard to nail down without knowing any of the Governors involved (or having incriminating evidence to bring to bear). Based on the current high vitriol partisan politics, it is plausible for this writer to imagine a governor exerting pressure on these Presidents, potentially threatening to hold back government funding. Currently, there is no public proof to this theory but political power plays might be in the mix somewhere. To what extent, we probably will not know for a long time. Or at least until someone writes a book. Proof is the only way for a conspiracy theory to elevate up to an actual fact.
Motivation #7 - Legal Liability
With the conferences clearly having knowledge of the heart condition, with the COVID-19 death total headed towards 200,000 deaths (compared to a bad flu year coming in at approximately 60,000 deaths), with the absence of a vaccine to ease the risk, and with the understanding of today’s legal environment, could the postponing of the fall season be a safe play to minimize risk to the massive financial endowments at the heart of these universities? If they were called into a court of law, how would it go over to hear an exceptionally intelligent university President trying to describe “who knew a player could die from COVID-19” or “no one could’ve predicted that a projected first round draft pick will never play football again due to a resulting heart condition”? The size of legal remunerations that could be demanded might well be staggering. It could be that the risk of legal fees and penalties far outweigh the financial gains of a single season. This is another reason that I deem to be legitimate, but to admit this publicly looks fairly weak for the leaders involved. Americans take risks every day (try driving in big city traffic or working on a farm) and appearing to run away from risk isn’t a look that the public will easily embrace.
Motivation #8 - Too Many COVID-19 Deaths
Maybe it’s really simple - in the eyes of the Presidents, too many have died. The university Presidents may want to minimize the chances of more happening on their watch. This is a noble goal, but it begs one other question. If this is true, why are they opening their campuses to students at all? Why not just go to online classes? Better yet, why not offer a corresponding reduction in costs as well? The online only education is less than originally agreed upon live, on-campus education, so shouldn’t there be a discount offered to students learning online?
If the Presidents would have cancelled live classes at the same time they announced the postponement of the fall season, this question of priorities and the implication of greed being a part of the decision wouldn’t exist. The Presidents did not do so and now, this suspicion exists. It especially exists in the minds of parents of students who didn’t get a reduction in price for the Spring 2020 semester which was half online for most collegiate students. Many are feeling the same over the Fall 2020 semester costs as well.
I’m not agreeing with the decisions of the Presidents. Nor am I saying these decisions are a miscarriage of justice. This decision does seem to a bit hasty when considering the six day reversal. The decision did not appear to have any coordination with the conference commissioners. Leaving out key members in the leadership chain of command like that is mystifying. To this writer, this is the root cause of much of the questioning of the decision to postpone fall sports.
The anger comes from a nation that is suffering through a pandemic. We can argue about the merits of the government’s leaders, their actions (or lack of actions) and the seriousness of the disease, but we can’t argue about the unrest that America is feeling right now. The country needs better decisions from those in leadership. Whether these leaders are the CEOs of large corporations or small businesses doesn’t matter. Whether these leaders are the top office holders in government or universities doesn’t matter, either. They have to make better decisions.
As you might be able to glean from reading the column above, I have an opinion on what I’d do, if I had the power. My plan would have began in the early summer when I’d have announced that I would postpone football and basketball until the Spring Semester of 2021 with the coordination of the other Power 5 Conferences. We would’ve used this time to watch the NBA, NHL, and WNBA bubbles to analyze how the bubbles worked. What were best practices and what could be done differently or better?
My goal would’ve been to have a “Magic Bubble” plan for the athletes of the big conferences for the Spring Semester. We’d start practice right after Christmas and begin game play when the semester started – with a massive kickoff/tipoff on Martin Luther King weekend. Instead of March Madness, we’d have one year of "May Madness" in hoops featuring a triumphant NCAA basketball tourney. I’d have tried to do a shorter football season featuring 9 conference only games. We’d work as Presidents to cobble together a 4 team championship series along with the big 4 or 5 bowls and call it a season. These would also occur in May.
My goal would be to postpone the 2020 fall seasons with as close to a 100% guarantee that the 2021 spring would be fantastic and amazing.