SALT LAKE CITY — From social media to the airwaves to the headlines, college football and the possibility its highest level — the Football Bowl Subdivision — could be sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic is commanding a lot of attention right now in the sports world.

Over the weekend, ESPN reported Power Five commissioners held an emergency meeting Sunday to discuss concerns about playing the season amid the pandemic. In the hours since, reports have indicated the Big Ten could be the first among the power leagues to nix the fall schedule.

At that point, the belief is it could cause a domino effect that ultimately brings an end to FBS football this fall. On Monday, another domino fell, as the Mountain West Conference postponed all fall sports, including football.

At the FBS level, the lack of having one overriding entity determining the fate of the season is showcasing how college football’s structure (or lack of) is complicating this issue.

Mountain West postpones fall football season over COVID-19 concerns

No one source for a cancellation

Last week, the NCAA put the fate of fall sports championships in the hands of each division. That doesn’t impact FBS, as the NCAA doesn’t control the College Football Playoff and bowl system that determines a national champion at that level. It does, however, impact the other NCAA divisions — from the Football Championship Subdivision to Division II to Division III — where the NCAA conducts a championship for each sport.

It shines a light on how the Power Five leagues hold the power in this situation and can autonomously decide the fate of their sport this fall. Division II and D-III canceled fall sports championships within hours of the NCAA putting the championships’ fate in their hands, and while the FCS championship isn’t officially called off, the overwhelming majority of conferences (nine out of 13) at that level have canceled or postponed fall play.

In the case of the FBS, it’s expected that whatever the Power Five conferences decide, other leagues and teams will follow.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse drafted a letter he intends to send to Big Ten presidents, Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger reported Monday, that outlined why Sasse believes college football needs to be played. Sasse himself is a former university president, at Midland University in Nebraska.

“Life is about tradeoffs. There are no guarantees that college football will be completely safe — that’s absolutely true; it’s always true. But the structure and discipline of football programs is very likely safer than what the lived experience of 18- to 22-year-olds will be if there isn’t a season,” Sasse wrote in the letter, shared on Twitter.

“This is a moment for leadership. These young men need a season. Please don’t cancel college football.”

What about the safety of the players and staff?

From within the Big Ten footprint, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh shared his confidence Monday that COVID-19 protocols can make the season sustainable without undue risk. He was joined by other Big Ten coaches, including Ohio State’s Ryan Day, Penn State’s James Franklin and Nebraska’s Scott Frost in sharing hope for a fall season Monday.

“I would like to address the rumors that are swirling today,” Harbaugh said in a statement, shared Monday by NFL Network’s Rich Eisen. “I’m not advocating for football this fall because of my passion or our players’ desire to play but because of the facts accumulated over the last eight weeks since our players returned to campus on June 13.”

Harbaugh shared a list of statistics regarding COVID-19 testing at Michigan, including zero positive tests out of the last 353 administered at the school, 11 positive tests out of 893 total administered (three upon the team’s initial return to campus) and no positive tests among the Michigan coaches or staff during their eight weeks of training.

“We have developed a great prototype for how we can make this work and provide the opportunity for players to play. If you are transparent and follow the rules, this is how it can be done.” Harbaugh wrote.

Former BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall, now coach at Virginia of the Atlantic Coast Conference, stressed the importance of keeping the scope of the pandemic issue in mind when determining the fate of the season.

“Football is secondary to all of those things in my opinion. This isn’t a football issue only. It’s a worldwide, national, state and community issue,” Mendenhall said, according to ESPN ACC reporter David M. Hale. “Until we have all those numbers where they are in (our bubble) — and once students arrive, it becomes an entirely different management issue that the world and the nation hasn’t solved.”

Mendenhall reported that Virginia has zero positive tests but acknowledged that there’s no guarantee that’s sustainable, per Hale.

“It’s morphing so quickly. It’s turbulent. I wouldn’t be surprised to have decisions made today, tomorrow, next week. What is clear is the numbers nationally don’t reflect progress, so regardless of how well we do in football, I have to acknowledge that,” Mendenhall said.

A potential link between COVID-19 and a heart condition

Late Monday afternoon, ESPN’s Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach reported on a significant health concern that could be linked to the coronavirus.

Myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, has been found in at least five Big Ten athletes, ESPN reported, as well as among several athletes in other conferences.

“The condition is usually caused by a viral infection, including those that cause the common cold, H1N1 influenza or mononucleosis. Left undiagnosed and untreated, it can cause heart damage and sudden cardiac arrest, which can be fatal,” ESPN’s Lavigne and Schlabach wrote. “It is a rare condition, but the COVID-19 virus has been linked with myocarditis with a higher frequency than other viruses, based on limited studies and anecdotal evidence since the start of the pandemic.”

The latest on each Power Five conference

  • The Detroit Free Press reported that Big Ten presidents are expected to meet Monday to formally vote on ending the fall football campaign for the league, with an official announcement coming from the Big Ten on Tuesday.
  • The Pac-12 CEO group, which includes one president or chancellor from each member institution, will meet Tuesday and is expected to vote on the upcoming season, according to ESPN. Kyle Bonagura reported “it is highly unlikely the Pac-12 will move forward with a fall season” and will look to play in the spring, while an official decision isn’t expected before Tuesday.
  • On Monday, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey shared via Twitter what he called the best advice he’s received during the COVID-19 pandemic: “Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day.” He added, “We know concerns remain. We have never had a FB season in a COVID-19 environment. Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying. We support, educate and care for student-athletes every day, and will continue to do so ... every day.”
  • National sports journalist Dan Patrick said during his radio show early Monday that both the ACC and Big 12 are “on the fence” regarding fall football. On Monday afternoon, Pat Forde reported that after the ACC’s athletic directors met during the day, the league is “moving forward in an attempt to play,” per a league staffer. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told the Des Moines Register Sunday, “I’ve literally been on dozens of calls with doctors and scientists, and no one has told us to stop. We’ll keep trying to move ahead, although it would be less than forthright to sit here and not add that the last 30 days has not gone the way we like.” 

A domino effect among the Group of Five conferences?

Already, one FBS conference, the Mid-American Conference, had officially nixed its fall schedule, citing safety concerns.

Then late Monday afternoon, Stadium’s Brett McMurphy was the first to report that the Mountain West would postpone its fall schedule, with the hope of playing in the spring; an official announcement came less than an hour later. That ended the hope of fall football for Utah State, after the school announced last week it would tentatively start the 2020 season on Oct. 2 against BYU, while pushing back the start of fall camp until Aug. 24.

On Monday morning, Old Dominion of Conference USA halted fall competition in all sports, becoming the second school to individually nix its fall sports after UConn, an independent in football, did so last week.

How the Power Five moves is expected to cause even more of a ripple effect for the Group of Five. “When the Big Ten cancels, we’re expecting to be on call within a day,” a Group of Five athletic director told Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel.

What’s ahead? ‘This week will be a crazy week’

The news is sparking plenty of reaction from national pundits.

“It’s like a roller coaster. A few months ago, you felt pretty good, then mid-June you got scared again. And then a few weeks ago ... it looks like they’re headed in a good direction again,” ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said on a video clip shared on Twitter.

“It seems like the Pac-12 and the Big Ten, if dominos are going to start to fall with the Power Five from everything I’ve heard, it seems it will start in the next 24 to 48 hours. ... This week will be a crazy week for college football.”

“Players want to play? No kidding. We all want college football to be played,” CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd wrote. “But it does not appear to be safe. Simple as that. And it won’t be until the global pandemic is at least under some sort of control — especially in the United States.”

USA Today’s Paul Myerberg illustrated the unprecedented nature of the situation, writing, “As a sport, college football debuted with Princeton and Rutgers playing the first game in 1869 and had continued without interruption in every year since, competing through two world wars and even through another pandemic — while some schedules were cut back, a season was held during the flu pandemic of 1918.”

What does it mean for athletes who have pro prospects?

At the Football Championship Subdivision level, the majority of conferences have already called off fall football, and ones like the Big Sky have expressed the desire to play in the spring, if safety dictates it’s possible. The Detroit Free Press reported Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren prefers a spring football season.

CBS Sports reported more than 30 players from Power Five programs have opted out of playing this fall, for reasons ranging from health concerns to getting a head start on preparing for the 2021 NFL draft.

What would happen if FBS football moved to the spring, especially for those athletes who are expected high NFL draft picks next season, like Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, the former Desert Hills High standout and reigning Outland Trophy winner?

A spring schedule would undoubtedly bump up against the NFL draft, which typically runs anywhere from the last week of April to the first weekend in May.

Joe Burrow, the former LSU quarterback who was taken No. 1 overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2020 draft, weighed in.

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Current college players have expressed their desire to play this season using the hashtag #WeWantToPlay on social media. Among them is Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, considered a high draft prospect in 2021.

“People are at just as much, if not more risk, if we don’t play,” Lawrence said in a string of tweets. “Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract COVID-19.

“... Football is a safe haven for so many people. We are more likely to get the virus in everyday life than playing football.”

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, who like Lawrence is projected as a top five 2021 draft pick, said on Twitter, “There’s been too much work put in!! #WeWantToPlay.”

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