After its latest Board of Governors meeting, the NCAA is leaving decisions on fall sports up to schools, conferences and divisions.
Roughly a month remains until the start of the ACC athletic season, and questions remain about the likelihood of a fall sports season. Earlier this week, the University of Virginia delayed the start of undergraduate in-person instruction until Sept. 8, representing a two-week delay. COVID-19 continues to alter college life, including athletics.
The NCAA announcement offers little, if any, additional clarity about fall sports.
Each division – from Division I to Division III, is asked to make decisions on their fall athletic seasons by Aug. 21. That leaves just over two weeks for schools, conferences and divisions to make a call on the season.
Shortly after the NCAA’s announcement, both the President’s Councils for Division III and Division II canceled fall sports championships. Some FCS conferences have also canceled fall seasons.
The news comes as most Power 5 teams are preparing for fall seasons.
At UVa, several athletic programs, including football, are back on Grounds preparing for fall competitions. It’s unclear if those seasons can safely take place when students return to Grounds and games start. Practicing wearing masks offers less potential exposure to the virus than full-contact competition between teams from different states.
“First and foremost, we need to make sure we provide a safe environment for college athletes to compete for an opportunity to play in NCAA championships,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a release. “A decision based on the realities in each division will provide clarity for conferences and campuses as they determine how to safely begin the academic year and the return to sports.”
The NCAA mandates that all leagues follow its return-to-sport guidelines recently released. If a program can’t follow those protocols this fall, it shouldn’t play. The ability to follow those protocols varies across leagues and divisions.
Power 5 athletic programs such as UVa possess more resources than schools at the FCS level or the Division II or Division III levels. That’s part of the reason — there’s also a financial component — why Division III schools were more willing to cancel fall sports.
Additionally, student-athletes have to be allowed to opt out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns, and those athletes must have their scholarships honored by the university. UVa football head coach Bronco Mendenhall announced in early July that he would honor scholarships if players opted out of the season.
Divisions are also required to come up with a plan for eligibility accommodations for those who opt out of the season by Aug. 14. Details for eligibility accommodations in the case a season is canceled or cut short due to COVID-19 — like the 2020 spring season — are also required to be shared by Aug. 14.
Additional details of the NCAA’s announcement include that if 50% or more of eligible teams in a sport within a division cancel their fall seasons, no fall NCAA championship will occur in that sport. While that applies on the gridiron to FCS teams like JMU and VMI, it doesn’t apply to the FBS because the College Football Playoff is not an NCAA-sanctioned event.
Fall Olympic sports do play NCAA championships, however, meaning at least 50% of teams eligible for the NCAA postseason in the sport need to play fall seasons for a NCAA championship to take place.
The NCAA left open the possibility of fall sports championships taking place in the spring should any be postponed.
Other important guidelines state that schools can’t require student-athletes to waive legal rights regarding the virus to play this fall. Additionally, member schools “must cover COVID-19 related medical expenses for student-athletes to prevent out-of-pocket expenses for college athletes and their families.”
While the NCAA shared a few guidelines and basic principles to follow this fall, the organization firmly shifted the decision-making process onto other entities with its announcement. If a fall sports season is to take place, it’s up to schools, conferences and divisions instead of Mark Emmert and company.
“The first and most important consideration is whether sports can be conducted safely for college athletes,” Michael V. Drake, the chair of the NCAA’s Board of Governors, said in a statement. “Each division must examine whether it has the resources available to take the required precautions given the spread of COVID-19.”