The Big 12’s decision to proceed with fall sports is an important revelation. While two Power 5 conferences have already postponed football and other sports, the Big 12 announced Wednesday that it is staying the course.
But many questions still remain, and conference and NCAA leadership will need to provide adequate answers to student-athletes and coaches before competition resumes in September.
As Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said during a Wednesday teleconference, the league’s announcement provides “clarity” for the road ahead. The conference has finally released a schedule for football season and will increase testing and heighten return to play protocols.
Outside of that, though, not much else is certain.
“There’s a difference between clarity and certainty,” Bowlsby said. “I don’t think we have certainty in this environment.”
These are the biggest areas of uncertainty for student-athletes, coaches and administrators in wake of the Big 12’s announcement to stay the course:
One of the biggest priorities for student-athletes now, according to Bowlsby, is receiving clarification on several eligibility questions.
What if they opt out? What if the season is suspended after just a few games? What if the Big 12 changes plans again and ultimately postpones the season to the spring?
The NCAA is actively seeking to answer these questions, but needs more time.
The Division I Council said Wednesday that fall sport athletes should be guaranteed minimum protections if their season is impacted by COVID-19, or if they compete and opt out. According to an official statement from the council, its recommendations for impacted athletes include either “an extension of the five-year period of eligibility; and an additional season of competition if the athlete participates in 50 percent or less of the maximum number of competitions allowed in each sport by Division I rules.”
The deadline for this eligibility decision was originally Friday, but has been moved to Aug. 21 to allow allow for additional input.
Bowlsby is vouching for “as liberal a treatment for eligibility issues” as possible.
“I think there will be some bright lines drawn, and I think that will give some clarity to it,” Bowlsby said, adding that all 10 member programs are committed to ensuring financial aid for students who opt out of the season.
What will happen if a team suffers a COVID-19 outbreak?
Bowlsby said the additional testing and return to play measures announced Wednesday make the Big 12 “well-prepared” to compete beginning next month. But according to the commissioner, even with these heightened safety protocols, there will always be a chance that athletes could get sick.
“If anybody is around that tells you that they can accurately forecast what’s gonna happen with the virus, they’re delusional,” Bowlsby said.
If an outbreak does occur, it’s possible some games on the conference schedule will be postponed or canceled. The move to a “9+1” schedule should provide some flexibility to teams in terms of rescheduling if they don’t have enough players available to compete.
But Bowlsby said the conference haven’t set roster limits — a minimum amount of players who have tested negative for the virus — that must be met in order to compete.
“It’s just another one of those decisions that we’ll have to be making in real time,” Bowlsby said.”
While some pro leagues like the NBA have returned to play in “bubbles,” Bowlsby says that isn’t an option for the Big 12, but he thinks each individual team’s preseason camp set up emulates that type of situation.
But when the season begins, and as other students return to campus for a new school year, athletes will have to make responsible decision in order to keep themselves — and their teammates — healthy.
“I think a lot of the success of teams during the season going forward, and a lot of how many potholes we fall into, has to do with whether or not young people can discipline themselves to not go to parties where there are hundreds of kids in close contact, not be in crowded restaurants and the like,” Bowlsby said. “You can’t stop living your life, but you also have to be smart about putting yourself in risky situations.”
Bowlsby added that the Big 12 will be ready to “pivot” should the pandemic trend in the wrong direction. If that means suspending play and picking things back up in the spring, WVU coach Neal Brown might take issue.
“If I’m a player, I want maximize my four years of eligibility. That’s where we’re gonna run into some issues in the spring,” Brown said Monday during a video conference before the Big 12 announced its plan to continue with fall sports. “Can the models work? Absolutely. But I think we have to address the eligibility concern from the student-athletes.”
WVU football began fall camp Monday with zero active cases of COVID-19.
Who can watch the games?
Bowlsby said the Big 12 will leave it up to member programs to determine stadium capacities for the upcoming season. Each school will work with local and state health and elected officials to determine how many fans can attend games, and in the time since Wednesday’s announcement, some programs have already announced ticketing plans.
Baylor was first to make an announcement: the Bears will allow crowds of up to 25 percent capacity into McLane Stadium for home games, and may consider increasing that cap later in the season to provide single game ticket opportunities to fans.
Texas Tech announced Thursday that Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock will also operate at 25 percent capacity for all home games. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has issued a statewide mandate limiting all stadiums to 50 percent capacity for all pro and college sports, but the Texas Longhorns are also reportedly considering 25 percent attendance at their home games, according to CBS Sports.
Oklahoma will also cap attendance at 25 percent, while Oklahoma State published a fan safety policy, requiring fans wear masks, prohibiting tailgating and mandating that “adequate space is allotted between groups.”
In May, Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said that the Cyclones would limit attendance at Jack Trice Stadium to about 30,000 fans — roughly half the stadium’s capacity.
Officials from WVU Athletics have said they’re actively working with the proper entities to determine game day attendance numbers, but had not published a revised ticketing plan as of Thursday afternoon.
Will a national champion be crowned?
Bowlsby thinks the discussion surrounding the College Football Playoff is one that will require a lot of patience.
While the commissioner said there’s no “obvious reason” to cancel the postseason at this point, it’s hard to imagine only three-fifths of the Power 5 competing for a legitimate national championship.
In addition, Bowlsby noted that postseason play in college football takes place during “the heart of the virus season” in December and January.
“It’s gonna be a while into the season before all of that is resolved,” Bowlsby said. “We just are gonna have to wait and see.”
As for the possibility of crowning a champion in the fall and the spring, Bowlsby isn’t sure that’s a legitimate option.
“Ask the logical question, whether either one is actually a champion,” Bowlsby said. “It’s a good question, but it’s unanswered at this point.”