How the coronavirus could change college sports forever

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Two of the biggest conferences in college sports, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, announced the cancellation of all fall sports because of the coronavirus pandemic. The move means that some of the traditional powerhouses in college football — including Ohio State, Michigan, USC and Stanford — will not compete in the upcoming season, if one is held at all.

The decision came against the backdrop of a movement led by some of the sport’s most prominent players, who came together to release a list of criteria they want universities to meet under the slogan #WeWantToPlay. At the moment, the other three members in the so-called Power Five conferences are planning to hold their seasons with altered schedules.

Though fall sports include everything from cross-country to volleyball, football carries the biggest weight because of the tremendous amount of money involved. Universities count on the funds from football to pay for the rest of their athletic departments and make playing “non-revenue” sports financially feasible. A canceled season will mean more than $100 million in lost revenue for some schools. Conferences stand to miss out on billions of dollars in TV contracts and sponsorship deals.

Universities began inviting athletes in all fall sports back to campus in June after the NCAA, the governing body for college sports, lifted its moratorium on athletic activities. Within a few weeks, reports of players testing positive for COVID-19 began to surface from dozens of schools. Several star football players, including some with a life-threatening heart condition, announced they would be opting out of the season because of severe lingering impacts of the infection.

Why there’s debate

The financial impact of a missed college football season is so large, it could force massive changes to how all college sports work — especially if the other three Power Five conferences are forced to shut down and college basketball also ends up being canceled. In the short term, it will likely mean that many schools have to eliminate some of the less popular sports. Stanford, for example, scrapped 11 of its sports programs in early July. Many of those team sports may never return.

Over time, the pandemic could lead even more power to become concentrated among big-name universities that will have the ability to make up for their losses after the pandemic ends. This could compel the Power Five conferences to come together and establish their own competitions separate from the smaller conferences, or even leave the NCAA altogether, some say.

Others say the pandemic could lead to fundamental changes that could mean the end of the very idea of the student-athlete. The NCAA requires all college athletes to be amateurs, meaning they are barred from receiving any money or material benefit for their talents. This arrangement has long been criticized as exploitative. But the life-and-death stakes of the virus have made the idea of universities profiting from unpaid players all the more untenable, many argue.

The pandemic may have shifted the balance of power in favor of the athletes, who have suddenly been shown how much their schools rely on them. Before their seasons were canceled, football players from the Pac-12 banded together to create a list of demands including safety protocols and the right to financial compensation. The #WeWantToPlay movement also called for the creation of a college football players association. These collective actions could eventually lead to the creation of a players union and the end of amateurism.


Athletes will have more power over decision making

“College football is a multibillion-dollar industry built on a fallacy — that college football players can be mere ‘amateurs’ and typical college students while everyone around them profits from their labor. … But while the coronavirus has put the football season at risk, for some players it has given them a new opportunity: for activism and change, and, for the first time on the national level, perhaps a real voice in the process.” — Jane Coaston, Vox

Schools are being forced to choose between losing millions or granting athletes more power

“For any Power Five conference to hold a fall football season, it would have to reckon with the demands of these players. And if it did, the sport would never be the same.” — Rodger Sherman, Ringer

College admissions will be more fair with fewer spots taken up by athletes

“Less noticed has been a smaller but more lasting shakeup in the world of college athletics: the elimination of some entire teams. … Fewer spots will go toward side-door acceptances of student athletes, many of them privileged, and more will be available for Black and Latino applicants who haven’t attended private schools or couldn’t afford the cost to play.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

Many sports programs will be eliminated

“As schools make the inevitable deep cuts in vital academic programs, they will also have to make similar cuts in its — let’s face it — less vital athletic programs; otherwise, students and professors alike will revolt.” — Joe Nocera, Bloomberg

The NCAA will stifle any major changes

“For college players to reach that choice, the NCAA first has to recognize the players for what they are — a vast labor force that produces billions of revenue that is deemed worthy of having rights at a bargaining table. And we all know how the NCAA feels about that. A century’s worth of history has spelled out precisely how much volume the NCAA is willing to allow when it comes to the voices of its labor force. Very little. And when it comes to power to choose how and when to play, even less.” — Charles Robinson, Yahoo Sports

The Power Five may leave the NCAA to create its own professional league

“It is increasingly clear that 2020 is a watershed moment for intercollegiate athletics. Major change is coming. We might see the long-threatened withdrawal of the Power Five schools (or a subset therein) from the NCAA to establish an untrammeled commercial league. ... If the big-time programs depart, there will be more motivation for the rest of Division I to explore the re-entry into a truly academic model of college sports.” — Andrew Zimbalist, Forbes

Athletes will use their newfound collective power to end the exploitative college sports system

“At some point in the next few years, there will be a large-scale organized boycott of a major college sports event, or a team that walks off the floor, or a star player who leads a movement that finally knocks amateurism flat on its back. It won’t happen right now, but it’s only a matter of time.” — Dan Wolken, USA Today

Players will insist on becoming employees, rather than student-athletes

“It won’t be long before the players demand to be paid for being the workforce of such a lucrative industry. Fancy locker rooms, under-the-table cash and scholarships that don’t provide the same education agency as their peers don’t cut it anymore.” — Dieter Kurtenbach, San Jose Mercury News

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images