When the Big Ten and Pac-12 said they would forgo football this fall, the assumption was other conferences would follow their lead.
They did not.
Financial and political pressures from sources as influential as President Donald Trump won out. Every major football conference elected to play this fall, including the Big Ten and Pac-12, and the season began even as medical experts cautioned against extensive travel and confirmed coronavirus case numbers climbed nationwide.
Game cancellations and scheduling complications resulting from outbreaks among student-athletes and staff have plagued the football season.
And coronavirus numbers are now worse than ever in the U.S. The country is averaging more than 180,000 new recorded cases daily and counted more than 277,600 deaths overall as of Friday afternoon.
Yet despite the problems with football, the NCAA and colleges haven't pulled the plug on Division I men's basketball. Athletics observers overwhelmingly point to one reason why: money.
They charge that the association is gambling with players' health and wellness in exchange for trying to protect its bottom line. That's because missing out on key revenue from its men's basketball championship could sink its already unsteady finances.
"They had an invincible mentality, that they could control all the variables in a pandemic and win the game," said Donna Lopiano, president of the Drake Group, an ethics watchdog in college athletics. "They couldn't."
College sports during COVID-19
In August, as conferences and institutions decided how and whether to have fall sports, the NCAA crafted safety rules that athletic programs would need to follow if they went ahead with their seasons. These included following local and state COVID-19 protocols and allowing athletes to opt out of participating.
The organization later released intricate guidelines for hosting basketball. They suggest coronavirus testing occurs three times weekly, and if players or certain coaches become infected, all players and core staff should quarantine for 14 days. This guidance hasn't been updated since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week shortened the recommended duration of quarantine for people who come into contact with the virus.
These protocols were in place when the basketball season tipped off last week but, as with the football season, it shortly spun into chaos. Games were nixed and practices were paused as players and coaches tested positive for the virus.
Part of the problem, as the NCAA noted in its guidelines, is that basketball is an indoor sport, and players have long periods of sustained contact with each other, likely without face coverings. These are all conditions ripe to facilitate the virus's spread, said Andrew Shuman, a medical doctor and otolaryngology professor at the University of Michigan who has researched COVID-19's effects on collegiate sports. Otolaryngology is a specialty focused on the ears, nose and throat.
The health crisis is expected to worsen as winter temperatures take hold. It's probable, then, that basketball games and the travel associated with them could happen during a period when it's significantly more likely players can catch the virus, Shuman said.
"There is no safe way of playing contact sports inside in the current climate," he said.
Why host basketball?
The NCAA reaps the bulk of its revenue from multimillion dollar television contracts to broadcast the men's basketball championship, as well as ticket sales from the 67-game event. Canceling those matches, as it was forced to do last season out of concern for the virus, would cut deep into their revenue.
The association typically passes tens of millions of dollars to its three divisions, but because the 2020 March Madness was canceled, each one was anticipated to lose 70% of its annual estimated revenue last fiscal year. The NCAA slashed its total payout to Division I schools and conferences by about $375 million as a result, reducing it to $225 million.
Diminished revenue did not erase colleges' obligations to pay its athletics staff, some of whom are among the top earners at their institutions, said Ellen Staurowsky, a sport management professor at Drexel University, in Pennsylvania. The highest-paid men's basketball coach last season was the University of Kentucky's John Calipari, who earned more than $8 million, according to USA Today. Eight other coaches brought in $4 million each.
The NCAA is facing headwinds on other fronts. Student attendance at major college sporting events has waned, and Staurowsky said younger generations may also be less interested. The NCAA is also on the hook to pay out millions of dollars across several recent legal settlements, she said.
These converging factors, if combined with another March Madness shutdown, would spell big trouble for the NCAA, Staurowksy said.
Higher Ed Dive's emailed request for comment to an NCAA spokesperson was returned by an out-of-office message stating they were furloughed until later this month. Another NCAA representative declined to comment.
Last month the NCAA announced it was in talks with the city of Indianapolis to exclusively host this season's tournament, rather than hold preliminary games across 13 sites as usual. This is likely an intentional decision, Staurowsky said.
The association has long maintained a financially fruitful relationship with its hometown, which helped build its headquarters and charges it $1 in rent for land worth almost $45 million, the Indianapolis Star reported in 2014. In return, the NCAA helps boost Indianapolis' national profile and has agreed to host several events there every five years until 2060.
Staurowsky said she's skeptical of the NCAA's reasoning for keeping March Madness, adding that that "corporate interests are overriding health considerations."
Student-athletes won't walk out even if they feel their safety is jeopardized by continuing with the basketball season, Staurowsky theorizes. That's partially because the NBA is still expected to have its season, which kicks off this month — possibly motivating those who want to make it to the professional level to keep playing. Few college athletes go pro.
Some professional leagues, like the NBA and NHL, have been lauded for their coronavirus safety measures. The NBA created a "bubble," a zone where players and league staffers were living isolated from the virus during the tail end of last season and the playoffs.
But college athletes can't be expected to abide by the same restrictions, said Marc Edelman, a sports law professor at Baruch College, in New York City.
Professional players assuming certain risks are paid big salaries and have representation to negotiate protections, Edelman said. Students do not.
But Edelman doesn't believe they'll raise objections immediately, saying COVID-19-related lawsuits from student players will likely emerge later.
He predicts student-athletes who experience long-term symptoms will sue when they learn that their athletic prowess and prospects are affected. Edelman likened this to legal challenges brought against the NCAA by former college players who experienced medical problems resulting from concussions. The NCAA settled some of these claims to the tune of $75 million last year.
A student death, however, would be a "nightmare scenario" for colleges and their attorneys, especially if it was due to institutional negligence, Edelman said.
College students have died from COVID-19-related complications, including a football player.
Even some NCAA defenders have little positive to say about its decision to let basketball proceed.
Walter Harrison is president emeritus of the University of Hartford, in Connecticut, and a former chair of the NCAA's top governing board. He told Higher Ed Dive he wishes the association had pursued more stringent rules for playing, as opposed to merely guidelines.
But he's also concerned the NCAA couldn't weather the brewing financial storm. When Harrison helped oversee the organization's finances in the early 2000s, the group had enough money reserved to cushion the blow of the cancellation of a single basketball season, he said.
If the NCAA made massive layoffs and other cutbacks, it maybe could survive two season cuts, Harrison said. But he's not sure.
"It's pretty bleak," he said.