No football will be played in College Park this fall. Nor any other collegiate varsity sport.
The Big Ten Conference, which includes the University of Maryland, announced Tuesday that it is postponing its fall sports season because of health and safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic, becoming the first Power 5 conference to do so.
The conference’s decision is the latest blow to college football amid the uncertainty induced by the pandemic. The conference said it will explore playing again in the spring, but didn’t say what its plans are for winter sports, such as men’s and women’s basketball, which begin in November.
Other sports affected include men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball.
“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”
Less than an hour after the Big Ten’s announcement, the Pac-12 Conference postponed all sports competition through the end of the year, mirroring the decision made by the Ivy League. The Big Ten and Pac-12′s decision leaves three Power 5 leagues — the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 Conference — to decide whether they will continue to play in the fall.
The college football season started falling apart last Wednesday when the University of Connecticut became the first Football Bowl Subdivision team to cancel its season. On Saturday, the Mid-American Conference postponed its fall sports season, becoming the first Division I league in the Football Bowl Subdivision to do so. The Mountain West followed Monday, becoming the second FBS conference to postpone its fall season.
With the Big Ten and Pac-12 decisions, 53 of the 130 FBS schools will not play this fall.
The possibility of an uninterrupted college football season has appeared uncertain since the coronavirus outbreak shuttered spring football practice. While the NCAA lifted its moratorium for on-campus workouts and football programs began summer workouts in June, cases of COVID-19 continued to rise in parts of the country.
Several programs, including Maryland, have struggled to avoid coronavirus outbreaks and had to temporarily pause workouts. This reality underscored the potential problem that loomed in the fall with universities set to bring students back to campus.
“The decision announced today by the Big Ten Conference was made in the best interests of the health, safety and well-being of our student-athletes,” Maryland Athletic Director Damon Evans said in a statement. “I know that for our student-athletes, returning to campus in the Fall is synonymous with the opportunity to compete at the highest level in the sport they love. Not being able to compete this fall is disappointing for all of us, but I have every confidence they will remain resilient and strong in these trying times.”
The NCAA ultimately placed responsibility on its respective divisions and conferences to decide how they would approach the fall sports season. Divisions II and III, whose football seasons don’t bring in as much revenue as Division I, announced cancellations of their fall sports championships.
Across the Power 5, conferences announced new schedules to limit travel and provide flexibility should play need to be rescheduled. The Big Ten announced a 10-game, conference-only schedule last Wednesday, and teams subsequently began preseason camp.
“We wanted to plan ahead and plan for a possible season,” Warren said in a televised interview Tuesday with The Big Ten Network. “We made it very clear the season might not actually come to fruition. We felt it was important to plan the schedule so that if we were fortunate to play fall sports, especially football, we would have a schedule in place.”
“But six days is six days... and I said from Day One that on a day-to-day basis, we would listen, follow, understand and embrace the advice from our medial experts. And that’s what we did here.”
Maryland opened its preseason football camp Friday, with coach Mike Locksley announcing that six players opted out of the season because of coronavirus concerns. On Saturday, following the MAC’s announcement, the Big Ten instructed teams to remain in the acclimatization period of practice, with players wearing helmets and no pads.
“I know a significant amount of thought and medical research went into this decision and while I am extremely disappointed for our team, I’m also very understanding,” Locksley said in a statement. “We will continue to do what’s best for our student-athletes both on and off the field and when the time comes to compete, we’ll be ready.”
Maryland athletics revealed the results Aug. 4 of its latest coronavirus testing, announcing that no individuals tested positive for COVID-19 out of 227 student-athletes and staff screened for the virus July 27.
In total, the athletic department said it has administered 964 tests, with 12 positive results, a positivity rate of 1.2%.
Player concerns about safety and scholarship protection came to a boil recently, as student-athletes from the Big Ten and Pac-12 put out a list of demands to address protections during the pandemic. The NCAA released directives for conferences, including mandating schools to honor scholarships if a player opts out.
Recent reports about myocarditis, a heart condition linked to COVID-19, further concerned Power 5 conference officials about the long-term complications that could come with contracting the virus.
“There has been a lot of discussion about myocarditis,” Warren said. “Any time you’re talking about the heart of anyone, but especially a young person, you have to be concerned. We want to make sure we’re doing everything we possibly can to keep our student-athletes safe.”
Across college football, players who are expected to be high draft picks in the 2021 NFL draft announced their decisions to opt out of the season and prepare for their professional careers. Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman and Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore were among the Big Ten players who announced that they wouldn’t play in the 2020 season.
According to multiple reports, commissioners from each Power 5 conference met Sunday to discuss the future of the fall sports season, particularly football.
As the reports came out, some of college football’s top players began posting their desire to play the season out on social media. Many of them tweeted using a hashtag, “#WeWantToPlay,” and posted a unified statement from players in each Power 5 conference, calling for a universal approach to handling the season and the eventual creation of a College Football Players Association.
They drew support from fans and politicians alike, including President Donald J. Trump, who Monday retweeted Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, adding: “The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled. #WeWantToPlay”
The financial implications of a canceled season are vast, with football serving as the lifeblood for many athletic departments. The Big Ten, with its lucrative television network, distributes about $50 million per year to its 14 members, which span from Maryland and Rutgers on the East Coast to Iowa and Nebraska out west.
Maryland departed the ACC in 2014 for the Big Ten, a move partly made in search of financial stability. But in the past six years, the football team has struggled to place a contender among such conference giants as Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. The Baltimore Sun reported in 2019 that athletic event ticket sales and outside donations to the football program had declined for two consecutive years.
Longtime Maryland athletics booster Tom McCausland said he agrees with the Big Ten’s decision, citing the rise in medical information regarding myocarditis. McCausland, a 1978 Maryland graduate, said he is especially sensitive to player safety after the death of Jordan McNair, the Terps offensive lineman whose heatstroke death in 2018 led to the firing of then-coach D.J. Durkin and multiple staffers.
He said it’s “reprehensible” for anyone “to take a chance on somebody’s life because we selfishly want to have football.”
McCausland hopes that a potential vaccine and better understanding of the medical risks associated with the virus will facilitate play in the spring.
“If [postponing the season] saves one kid, it’s worth it,” McCausland said.