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College Sports Falling Victim To Coronavirus And Financial Stresses

Stadiums like the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Conn., will be empty this year after the Ivy League canceled fall sports because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Stadiums like the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Conn., will be empty this year after the Ivy League canceled fall sports because of the coronavirus pandemic.

There will be no fall sports in the Ivy League this year, officials announced on Wednesday.

This is the latest in a series of coronavirus-related disruptions in the sports world, but the first Division I conference to cancel fall football plans.

The Ivy League Council of Presidents said in a statement that their institutions are implementing campus-wide health and safety policies that will make it impossible for sports teams to compete before the end of the fall semester.

"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," they wrote.

Enrolled student-athletes can participate in practices and other training opportunities, as long as they comply with guidelines of their institution and state. The league will also issue guidelines for a phased-in resumption of conditioning and practice activities, beginning with individual and small group workouts.

Fall sport student athletes will not use a season of Ivy League or NCAA eligibility in the fall, whether or not they enroll.

"A decision on the remaining winter and spring sports competition calendar, and on whether fall sport competition would be feasible in the spring, will be determined at a later date," they added.

The Ivy League was the first conference to cancel its men's and women's basketball tournaments as the coronavirus pandemic worsened in March.

While the move was viewed as an overreaction at the time, the NCAA canceled March Madness two days later. The NCAA canceled all remaining winter and spring championships on March 12 because of the public health threat.

It remains to be seen how Wednesday's decision will impact other conferences or the NCAA.

While the Ivy League is not one of the major Power 5 conferences, teams from its eight schools play in other conferences, leaving those programs without opponents.

Other leagues are in the process of making decisions and announcements about what fall sports will look like on their campuses.

On Tuesday, the Division III Centennial Conference announced will suspend intercollegiate athletic competition for the fall and will consider shifting certain sports, including football, to the spring.

College football in particular has been offered as a lure to convince people to comply with public health measures in states where coronavirus cases are spiking.

The governors of South Carolina, Georgia and Oklahoma, for example, have encouraged fans to wear masks and practice social distancing in order to be able to enjoy games in the fall.

And on Tuesday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine launched the #IWantASeason campaign, through which college athletes will encourage practices like hand washing and masking up on social media.

Ivy League institutions are supported by sizable endowments, and do not rely on athletics as a major moneymaker.

But for other colleges and universities grappling with health dilemmas, finances are a significant part of the equation.

Stanford officials announced on Wednesday that the university will discontinue 11 of its varsity sports programs after the 2020-2021 academic year, citing financial challenges exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The affected sports are men's and women's fencing, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men's rowing, co-ed and women's sailing, squash, synchronized swimming and men's volleyball and wrestling.

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Persis Drell and Director of Athletics Bernard Muir wrote in a joint statement that the financial model supporting its existing 36 sports is unsustainable, and the primary alternative would be a deep reduction in support for all of them.

The average Division I athletics program sponsors 18 varsity sports, they explained. As a result of this decision, Stanford will have 25.

The university projects a cumulative shortfall of nearly $70 million over the next three years, and expects its deficits to grow if upcoming sports seasons are suspended or modified because of the pandemic.

"We have calculated that the total incremental funding needed to permanently sustain these 11 sports at a nationally competitive varsity level exceeds $200 million," the officials wrote, adding that closing the department's deficit and supporting its remaining varsity programs will "require garnering resources that exceed that amount."

The 11 programs can participate in the upcoming season "should the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 allow it," and will have the opportunity to transition to club status after it concludes.

This change will impact more than 240 student athletes and 22 coaches, as well as high school commits. Twenty support staff positions will be eliminated in the process.

The university said it will honor students' existing athletics scholarships commitment throughout their undergraduate experiences at Stanford, and will "support them in every way possible" if they choose to pursue college athletics elsewhere. It will also honor the contracts of affected coaches and give severance pay to departing support staff.

Members of the Stanford community have reacted to the announcement.

"Nothing like a little adversity and a good challenge," Head Wrestling Coach Jason Borrelli tweeted. "First we will listen to understand why. Then we will strategize and prepare for the battle! Lastly, we will execute and make this right."

Budget cuts and school closures have prompted other higher education institutions to make similarly tough calls.

As of Wednesday, 51 Division I teams, 56 Division II teams and 52 Division III teams have been dropped by four-year colleges for reasons related to the pandemic, according to the Associated Press.

NPR's Russell Lewis contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.