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The dominoes for the 2020-21 NCAA plan have started to fall

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Online classes, positive COVID-19 results, and poor testing turnarounds surely can’t end the season already, right?

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman - North Carolina v Temple Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Raise your hand if you are super excited for the 2020-21 athletic season to happen. Now, raise your hand if you expect the season to take place from beginning to end. Finally, raise your hand if you think that any amount of the college sports season will take place. If you raised your hand more than once, I’m afraid I have potentially bad news for you.

Harvard University has released their commitment plan yesterday to proceed with the 2020-21 academic year. The entire link can be found here, but there are two key aspects of their announcement that are worth noting. Let’s start with the most alarming:

“Harvard College is committed to the academic progression of our students, which we must pursue while protecting the health and safety of our community. Guided by this commitment, all course instruction for the 2020-21 academic year will be delivered online. First-year students, and students who do not have adequate conditions for learning in their home environment, will be invited to return to campus for the Fall 2020 term.”

On the surface, this doesn’t look like much. Harvard is simply limiting how many students they have on campus during the school year, and one could argue that Harvard still plans to have their athletes come to campus because of the reduced student body. However, much like this entire COVID-19 situation things aren’t quite that simple.

Since student-athletes have returned to campus for football purposes, a number of schools across the country have struggled with their players testing positive for COVID-19. One of the programs with the most cases is Clemson, who at the time of writing this article has reported 37 coronavirus cases. The plan to bringing sports back this early is certainly crumbling beneath the feet of everyone involved in making the decision to do so, and it’s not just college: MLB is also in a bad way.

MLB has been able to report that 1.2 percent of their tests for the virus have come back positive. While that sounds like a promising start to getting the season back going, not every team has been able to even report their numbers. Testing delays have taken place in multiple clubhouses, with two of those being the Oakland A’s and the Houston Astros. Because of the delays teams have had to postpone workouts, which is a terrible development this early in the process considering the fact that nobody has had to travel to play other teams yet. If we’re to read the tea leaves carefully, then it’s safe to say that we shouldn’t expect the COVID baseball experiment to last very long.

So how does all of this impact college sports as a whole? The Ivy League’s precedent could make conferences take a step back to evaluate if athletics in the fall before vaccines are readily available are really worth it. Here’s Harvard’s statement about their athletic season:

“The Department of Athletics is working closely with partners across the University and the Ivy League to make the best possible decision about competitive sports this fall, with the health and well-being of our student athletes and our entire community as the guiding principle. As soon as a determination has been made it will be posted here and on gocrimson.com.”

The best way to look at what Harvard is doing with their academic year and what the Ivy League is discussing right now is this: these are the first two dominoes in what could be a very long chain reaction. Harvard isn’t going to be the last school that goes to online-only courses for the majority of their student body, and at the end of the day it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Ivy League opts out of fall sports. If the Ivy League doesn’t play, then there are other conferences that will likely follow suit. If enough conferences opt not to play, the Power Five schedules (assuming they hang on to the bitter end) lose a number of games. If they lose too many games, and fans already won’t be allowed into the stands, programs will lose even more money because of the deals that are cut between Power Five teams and non-conference opponents. See where this is going?

Simply put, if health and safety don’t keep Power Five teams from taking their respective fields this fall, then the money they’re going to lose may be the final straw. Yes, they would lose money whether they play or not in that scenario, but it’s important to note that college sports operations are expensive. Food, travel, and medical supplies COVID related or otherwise cost money. Investing in having what will be a dysfunctional season and having players almost certainly get sick while losing money is quite a cross for the NCAA to bear. When testing already isn’t working like MLB had hoped, how are we to expect things to get better anytime soon for football teams?

What all of this boils down to this is: I wouldn’t be married to the idea of having fall sports in 2020. While I would love nothing more than to see the second year of the Mack Brown Era unfold, the reality is that the dominoes are starting to fall, and it’s only a matter of time before things end the same way the 2019-20 basketball season ended. Time is indeed a very flat circle.