In terms of the return of college athletics — mainly when and how it will happen in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic — there are plenty of opinions across the spectrum. And they don’t always match.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a Friday interview posted on the association’s Twitter account that if college campuses don’t open in the fall, college sports likely aren’t happening.
“All of the commissioners and every president that I’ve talked to is in clear agreement: If you don’t have students on campus, you don’t have student-athletes on campus,” Emmert said. “That doesn’t mean [the school] has to be up and running in the full normal model, but you have to treat the health and well-being of the athletes at least as much as the regular students. ... If a school doesn’t reopen, then they’re not going to be playing sports. It’s really that simple.”
That falls in conflict with the opinion Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby had Thursday, when he told Stadium that college sports could get a green light if students are taking online-only classes.
“Going to class in an online sense is satisfactory,” Bowlsby said. “There’s room for that to happen. School has to be in session, student-athletes have to be going to class.”
For any progress to happen in the return of college athletics, some consensus must come. At times, that can be difficult, especially when millions of dollars are at stake for each school. How do you get those schools to agree to some sense of equality when the opportunity is there to gain an advantage?
West Virginia University Athletic Director Shane Lyons is seeing the situation unfold from an uncommon perspective. He sits as the chairman of the NCAA Division I Football Oversight Committee, the division’s primary authority on its most lucrative asset.
From that perch, Lyons is optimistic the schools will find that consensus.
“College athletics is a special place,” Lyons said Friday. “We all have our own agendas. We all have our own thoughts, but ultimately we come to the greater good of what’s good for college football. You kind of end up leaving your own personal agendas on the table.”
Lyons makes one thing clear: college athletics will go as college football goes. When he looks at the Big 12’s broadcasting rights contract — one that paid each school nearly $39 million in the 2018-19 school year — he sees a roughly 75-25 split between football and basketball, with football making up 75 percent of the TV revenue.
That’s why any changes to the football season could be calamitous to schools’ athletic coffers. Lyons said there is no specific language in the contract that designates a minimum number of games to be played, whether that’s a full 12-game season or an abbreviated conference-games-only season.
“I do think if we don’t play a full season or if it’s a limited season, that it will have a financial impact on our television contracts,” he said.
Lyons talked to the media Friday to announce that the furloughs that will affect nearly 900 employees at WVU would hit the athletic department as well. The athletic department will furlough 65 of its employees. Some will get laid off and not return. Every athletic department employee took some sort of pay cut for the 2020-21 school year.
Yet Lyons warned that the length of the pay cut is dependent on college athletics, especially college football, happening this year.
“If we have an altered football season, that could change significantly not only for our department, but across the country,” Lyons said. “We’re looking at the budgets and reductions on the basis of we’re playing football and what that’s going to look like from a donor standpoint and a ticket standpoint. That’s kind of where we’ve derived our potential shortfall, given that if we don’t play football or it’s altered, it could be significantly more.”
There are two prongs to the discussion of college athletics’ return, Lyons said. The health and well-being of the student-athletes are at the top. Right under that is fairness and equity among the member schools.
Different states are reopening at different paces, Lyons said. The schools have accepted some differences in terms of summer activities and voluntary workouts, understanding that there is not where the real advantages come into play. When the stakes get higher, though, that might not be the case. Lyons said the colleges have yet to dive into that question, but it’s on the horizon.
“The difficult part is when you get into the potential competition seasons, and some states may not be there,” Lyons said. “Does everybody hold on, or if you’re at a certain number, does everybody start moving forward without them?”