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Rooney: Fall, winter of discontent unfolding for sidelined Pac-12

Unlike many peers (so far), Pac-12 made safe call

BOULDER, CO – November 23, 2019: Colorado’s Mark Perry and Joshua Jynes, sacks Washington’s Jacob Eason during the game in Boulder on November 23, 2019. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

What now?

That is the unanswerable dilemma facing hundreds of Pac-12 Conference athletes, coaches, and athletic department personnel. The stark reality of no fall sports — no football Saturdays at Folsom, no NCAA tourney runs for Colorado soccer and volleyball, no national title chases for the CU cross country programs — has settled in like a bad meal after last week’s announcement by the Pac-12 suspending all athletic competition until Jan. 1.

Maybe all those CU teams, along with the men’s and women’s basketball teams, will get to play a winter-spring schedule eventually. Yet while athletic director Rick George vowed CU will not cut any of its athletic programs, a hammer that dropped at Iowa on Friday, it nonetheless is shaping up to be a long, cold autumn and winter on campus.

The financial ramifications of a fall-less football aside, it’s easy to summon empathy to all of the Buffs athletes. Most of them will not enjoy pro careers in their chosen sport, and the four to five years they spend competing at a high level in a league like the Pac-12 is a finite window in their lives.

Some relief was provided by the NCAA on Friday, as the Board of Governors approved eligibility relief for all fall sport athletes, regardless if their team plays a version of a fall schedule, a spring schedule, or no schedule at all. That, of course, does not mean each and every athlete in every sport will take advantage of the leeway, but it at least provides broader options for athletes whose careers have been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It remains to be seen if the great pandemic football experiment will succeed within those leagues that are either sticking their heads in the sand in hopes of avoiding reality or perhaps shrewdly navigating these uncharted waters. Despite numerous promises by conference officials and school presidents in March that no students would mean no football, football nonetheless is forging ahead in the east and the south.

Good luck to them. We’d all love to see college football kicking off on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, but the early returns haven’t been promising. At Notre Dame (playing as a full ACC member this season), North Carolina, and North Carolina State, officials have quickly pivoted from opening the classrooms for the 2020-21 academic year to going with online-only classes after alarming coronavirus spikes.

At the University of Georgia, a group of faculty health experts penned an editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution warning their institution is in “grave danger that is made doubly acute because we are operating blindly.” In South Bend, the student newspaper The Observer ran an editorial with the headline “Don’t make us write obituaries.” In North Carolina, university system president Peter Hans issued a statement placing the blame on the rollback of in-person classes on students for having the audacity to behave like college students.

It’s a mess, any way you cut it.

If somehow the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 successfully tackle the situation without any casualties, it may count as a minor miracle. But what happens when even one football player gets sick, possibly exposing himself to long-term health issues? What happens when the coronavirus spreads to any player’s family home, exposing older, more vulnerable loved ones to a potentially lethal infection? At what point are those ramifications considered collateral damage just to make sure the football economic juggernaut that allowed Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney to sign a $93 million contract last year keeps rolling along?

For those reasons, it is difficult to blame the Pac-12 and Big Ten for playing it safe, as frustrating as the decision has been to all those sidelined Buffs. These are the lives of young men and women the other leagues are gambling with and, quite frankly, they are officially banishing the notion of amateurism by putting the needs of the bottom line ahead of the health and safety of athletes.

It will be a lonely fall for football fans. But the Pac-12 made the right call.