Just one day after Columbia and Barnard announced that only first-years and sophomores will be invited back to campus for the fall semester, the Ivy League declared Wednesday afternoon that all athletics will be postponed until at least January. All sports will be prohibited from participating in competitions, while practices will be permitted if protections are in place to ensure they are in accordance with each institution’s and state’s policies.
Across the country, other Division I institutions in conferences with more robust streaming and sponsorship deals have allowed certain athletes to return to their campuses for summer training camps. Already, universities like Louisiana State University and Clemson University have seen surges in positive COVID-19 tests from their athletes. Just last week, the University of Kansas and numerous other large football schools were forced to suspend their training camps due to positive cases across their teams.
A release signed by all eight Ivy League university presidents pointed to notable safety risks in restarting athletics programming.
“With the information available to us today regarding the continued spread of the virus, we simply do not believe we can create and maintain an environment for intercollegiate athletic competition that meets our requirements for safety and acceptable levels of risk, consistent with the policies that each of our schools is adopting as part of its reopening plans this fall,” the statement read.
Despite Columbia’s announcements that no events or group gatherings will be allowed to be held in-person during the fall semester, Columbia Athletics stated that it will allow in-person practice with extra health and safety precautions. When asked about what these safety measures would look like, Athletic Director Peter Pilling declined to comment on behalf of the department and athletes, all of whom the department has prohibited from speaking to Spectator until further notice.
The announcement makes the Ivy League the first Division I conference to postpone or cancel the football season as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Columbia’s field hockey, volleyball, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s golf, cross country, and men’s and women’s tennis teams will also be unable to participate in competitions until the Ancient Eight lifts the ban.
Unlike other Division I institutions, Ivy League schools face less financial pressure in making the decision to postpone athletics programming, as many games are not televised. Ivy League basketball, a sport whose season will no longer begin in November, had a revenue of $18.2 million in 2018. Duke, a single program in the Atlantic Coast Conference, generated $36.4 million from just its men’s program that same year.
The Ancient Eight is the only Division I conference that does not offer any type of athletic scholarship, nor do its programs routinely make large profits. Football is, in fact, the program that actually loses the most money for the Ancient Eight; basketball is the conference's only profitable venture.
The Ivy League was also the first Division I league to cancel its spring sports on March 11. While the Ancient Eight was criticized for acting too hastily, in the following days, the NCAA followed its lead, canceling athletics altogether.
Until the Ivy League’s decision, only smaller Division III schools had made the decision to cancel their athletics. As the Ancient Eight is the inaugural Division I conference to suspend football for the fall, it could influence how many other leagues decide to follow suit. However, the Ivy League is a Football Championship Subdivision football league, the lower level in Division I, so this might not have a large impact on many larger conferences such as Southeastern Conference and Big Ten Conference.
Despite marginal losses in sponsorship revenue generated by individual teams, the University does face potential losses in donations from Athletics’ alumni and fanbase. The success of Columbia’s football team in 2017 and a Homecoming win led to the dramatic surge of donations on Giving Day that year. Last season, the team went 3-7, 2-5 Ivy, and for the first time since 2015, donations to the Athletics department decreased for Giving Day.
The league has considered moving all fall sports to the spring, but this may be complicated as many fall and spring sports compete on the same fields, making coordinating practice times and competitions extremely difficult.
In an interview with the New York Times, Princeton head football coach Bob Surace described the possibility of spring football as, “One word. Hope.” The conference has not applied for a spring waiver for its fall sports from the NCAA, but the possibility remains open.
The stakes of spring competition are high for athletes who might otherwise lose a full year of competition or be forced to spend a fifth year at their universities. The Ivy League recently overturned its long-standing policy about eligibility, which had previously barred students from competing within the conference as a graduate student or in most cases as a fifth-year undergraduate student. Now, no fall athletes will lose a year of Ivy League eligibility due to the conferences unusual regulations, allowing them the opportunity to compete for four years.