The Ivy League presidents placed all sports on hold Wednesday until at least January, making it the first Division I conference that will not play football as scheduled in the fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.
As a result, a broad array of sports, from football and men’s basketball to cross country and sailing, have been placed in limbo. Practices could take place in the fall, but conditions would have to improve for sports to be played next year.
As for the possibility of playing football in the spring, Princeton football Coach Bob Surace characterized it thusly: “One word. Hope.”
He added that a vaccine, better therapies and people following health guidelines would be necessary if there were any chance of playing in the spring, but there is also the fear of a second wave of the virus this winter.
Though the caliber of football in the Ivy League, which plays at the Football Championship Subdivision level and does not allow athletic scholarships, is far below that of the best programs in the country, the decision made by the eight presidents could have great influence among university leaders nationwide tasked with deciding when and how sports will return to college campuses.
Hints that the Ivy League was leaning this way became clearer on Monday when three of its schools announced plans for reopening their campuses to only some students in the fall. One of those schools, Harvard, said it would only allow 40 percent of its students — mostly freshmen — back on campus and that all classes would be held remotely. For the spring semester, Harvard said, freshmen would be sent off campus and seniors would be allowed to return for their final semester.
Football coaches had anticipated this decision since the Ivy League announced last week that it would decide on the fate of fall sports on Wednesday — and in the intervening days two coaches said they had been not asked about making contingency plans. Robin Harris, the executive director of the Ivy League, declined an interview request before the decision was announced.
The Ivy League universities, which are buoyed by large endowments and a powerful academic brand, have largely been able to remove money from decisions regarding athletics. For example, the Ivy League became the last Division I league to hold a conference basketball tournament and is the only league that prohibits its football teams from playing in bowl games or a playoff. And as the start of the college football season has crept into August, the Ivy League has steadfastly stuck to a 10-week season ending on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. This year, it was due to begin on Sept. 19.
The Ivy League also did not flinch on March 10, when it became the first conference to cancel its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, just before the coronavirus began to run rampant in the Northeast.
Almost immediately, the Ivy League was criticized for overreacting, with some of the harshest criticism coming from its own players and coaches. But within two days, the N.C.A.A. tournaments had been canceled, and the N.B.A., the N.H.L. and Major League Baseball’s spring training suspended games.
The Ivy League spokesman Matt Panto said that the conference had not sought a waiver from the N.C.A.A. to move football (or other sports) to the spring, something the official believed would be required. An N.C.A.A. spokeswoman, Stacey Osborn, declined to answer questions about the waiver process.
While pro basketball, soccer and baseball have experienced halting moments in their recent returns with sprinklings of positive tests and hiccups in the testing process, a return of college sports is even more problematic because its players — unlike the professionals — are not paid.
Also, the surge in cases in many pockets of the country over the last month has created more obstacles for the return this fall of college football, which many schools count on for millions of dollars in television, ticket and advertising revenues that fuel athletic departments.
The relatively simple task of bringing football players back to campus for voluntary workouts has in some cases proved so problematic that schools have been forced to abandon them because of Covid-19 outbreaks within their ranks. In the last week, Kansas, Louisiana Tech and Texas-El Paso became the latest to shut down.
Colleges at the lower levels of the N.C.A.A., which is made up of more than 1,100 schools, have already begun to cancel fall sports. Williams, Bowdoin, Swarthmore and Grinnell — all small liberal arts colleges that play at the nonscholarship Division III level — are among those to call off their fall sports seasons.
So, too, have the dozen Division II schools in the California Collegiate Athletic Association, which in May announced that it would cancel fall sports shortly after the Cal State University chancellor said that courses this fall would be held online with few exceptions. But those schools, like Swarthmore, do not play football.
The Patriot League, which includes Lehigh, Lafayette, Fordham and other mostly small colleges in the Northeast with limited athletic scholarships, announced late last month that its fall sports — including football, which competes at the F.C.S. level — would play league competition from the end of September until Thanksgiving, yet travel by airplane would not be permitted. Fordham announced Tuesday that it had canceled its first three games — including a Sept. 12 game at Hawaii. Last week, Lafayette canceled its season-opening game at Navy.
Shortly after the Patriot League announced its restrictions, Morehouse College, which competes at the Division II level, became the first scholarship program to cancel its football season. The decision by Morehouse, a historically Black college, highlighted a troubling prospect: that if the school played football it could potentially harm even more African-American people, which through comorbidity factors, living conditions or inadequate access to health care have shown to be more vulnerable to the most severe effects of the virus.
When asked in an interview how he foresaw college leaders reacting to the recent uptick in cases, Morehouse President David A. Thomas said: “I would hope every president asks themselves that question: Why am I in business? What am I here for?”