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MAC's Jon Steinbrecher details canceling fall football: It's about health, not money

The Mid-American Conference became the first Football Bowl Subdivision league to cancel the fall football season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning 12 teams will not play in 2020. The university presidents met Saturday morning and unanimously voted to shut down all fall sports.

MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said Saturday the league plans to shift fall sports, including football, to the spring. However, there aren't timeline plans in place for how to move those athletic events to the spring at this point.

"If you told me in March we'd be here today, I would have never believed it," Steinbrecher said. "Over the last several weeks, you're certainly contemplating what some of the possibilities could be. Hoped this wouldn't be the case, but here we are."

The fall sports being moved to the spring include men's and women's cross country, field hockey, football, men's and women's soccer and women's volleyball. Winter sports, like men's and women's basketball, are still expected to begin as scheduled. There are roughly 2,100 student-athletes impacted.

The choice to cancel fall sports, Steinbrecher said, wasn't made for financial reasons, even though the league is set to lose millions from nixed nonconference football games against Power Five opponents. Bowling Green is losing $2.2 million, while Central Michigan takes a $2.15 million hit for originally scheduled games against Nebraska ($1.3 million) and Northwestern ($850,000) which are no longer on the schedule.

"It would be naive to say that you don't give thought and consideration to what the financial ramifications of any decision are, but this was a health and well-being decision, first and foremost," Steinbrecher said. "We don't know what this will mean financially."

[ Mid-major colleges could be crippled by football cancellations; what do contracts say? ]

The prolonged financial downfall, which began with the cancellation of men's and women's basketball tournaments in March, won't become clear until a later date and depend on the fall, winter and spring months.

Steinbrecher said health experts were uncomfortable with putting players in an environment likely to spread the coronavirus, explaining playing sports is more of a risk than sitting in a classroom. For now, the three Michigan MAC schools — CMU, Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan — are allowing students to return in the fall for in-person learning.

Some athletes in the MAC were prepared to opt-out of the fall football season for health concerns, Steinbrecher said, and "a number of students" were anxious and worried because the conference had yet to make an announcement.

He wasn't sure how the situation would play out, especially after a Thursday meeting with university presidents went longer than expected and had to be continued Saturday. There wasn't a drop-dead date to cancel the season, but he wanted to take action before teams started fall practices.

"I came into today's meeting in a similar place," Steinbrecher said. "It could've gone several different ways."

Steinbrecher has had conversations with fellow FBS commissioners and sent them an email before his Saturday morning news conference to make each conference aware of what the MAC was preparing to unveil. He would not give his opinion on if there will be a domino effect in the Power Five and Group of Five.

[ Big Ten commissioner prefers spring college football season ]

But Steinbrecher said he didn't feel pressure to be the first conference to cancel fall sports — even as the last remaining FBS league to decide on the 2020 schedule.

"We talked about a lot of issues," Steinbrecher said. "We talked about a lot of different options, an array of things. That's part of what took so long with this conversation, taking the time to give consideration across the board. We believe, as a league, we've taken a leadership stance."

In terms of eligibility and transfer rules, Steinbrecher isn't sure how those will unfold. The decisions will be made by the NCAA. He wouldn't say if he thinks the canceled season will cause an increase of MAC players in the transfer portal.

"The NCAA Council and other governance groups are already aware of those things and are having conversations on that, so those are decisions that we're going to need to receive from our national governing body.

"Hopefully, in the not too distant future so we can guide our student-athletes."

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