A timeline of college sports' postponements, return-to-play rules and cancellations

ByDavid M. Hale ESPN logo
Thursday, August 13, 2020

Amid six months of near constant setbacks for college sports because of the coronavirus pandemic, one of the biggest complaints from athletics administrators, coaches and fans has been the lack of a centralized leadership. While the professional leagues have set clear-cut plans for return to play, college sports have faced numerous cancellations/postponements. From the initial tweaks to conference basketball tournaments to the ultimate cancellation of some leagues' fall football seasons, it's been a slow, steady march toward the current situation.

Here's a look back at how we got here:

March 10: Ivy League nixes tournament

The Ivy League announced it would cancel its annual conference basketball tournament, naming its regular-season champion, Yale, the winner of its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The CDC announced 290 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States that day.

March 11: The NBA shuts down

The NBA announced -- while games were in progress -- that operations would cease after one of its players (Utah's Rudy Gobert) tested positive. Just days earlier, Gobert had jokingly touched reporters' microphones during a news conference in an apparent effort to downplay the likelihood of virus transmission. The NBA's decision led to a swift domino effect that saw other sports and leagues halt play.

March 12: ACC cancels its basketball tournament

The first instinct by college officials was to bar fans from the arenas for its basketball tournaments, but after the NBA's decision to shut down, that idea became far more untenable. Nowhere was the push-and-pull of revenue versus safety more obvious than in the ACC, where players from Clemson and Florida State milled about the court waiting to play before an official announcement came from commissioner John Swofford, who tooka microphone at midcourt to announce the decision.

March 12: NCAA tournament canceled

Just hours after the ACC became the final league to nix its conference tournament, the NCAA shut down all winter and spring sports, including the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments. It was a blow to the college sports landscape financially, but more so it showed nothing would be immune to the pandemic.

May 15: Bowling Green cuts baseball

With the financial impact of the virus coming into focus, many schools began grappling with how to cut costs. The first big blow came when Bowling Green nixed its baseball program(it ended up raising funds to save it later on) and restructured its athletics department in a move aimed to save about $2 million. Numerous other universities would follow suit in the ensuing months, most notably Stanford, which cut 11 varsity sports, while every school across the country began grappling with the possibility that all-important football revenue could be in jeopardy, too.

June 1: Players return to campus

Campus restrictions for athletes began to disappear as the NCAA allowed players and coaches to return on a voluntary basis. Most schools instituted return-to-campus protocols including testing and isolation, as well as reduced capacity in the weight room and team meeting rooms.

June 4: Players find their voice

In the aftermath of George Floyd's death while in police custody, protests against police brutality and social injustice broke out across the country, and college football's biggest stars added their voices to the chorus. A tipping point came when Florida State star Marvin Wilson called out his own coach, Mike Norvell, for misleading comments about social justice conversations between coaches and players, with Wilson suggesting players might sit out in protest. That situation was quickly resolved, but an outpouring of other issues were raised by players in the ensuing weeks, including at West Virginia and Iowa, where high-profile staffers were fired as a result. The empowerment and unification of players' voices via social media created a unique new aspect to how schools would approach the COVID-19 pandemic.

June 12: Houston pauses workouts

As schools began allowing athletes back to campus for voluntary workouts, the first indications that COVID-19 couldn't be kept at bay came from Houston, where the Cougars hit the pause button on their workouts following reports of six positive tests.

June 17: NCAA approves return-to-play plans

The NCAA Division I council approved a six-week practice schedule that would set a template for a possible return to play in the fall. This would allow camps to open as early as July 13 for some schools.

June 19: Clemson and LSU suffer outbreaks

The two teams that played for a championship in January were the first programs to announce widespread outbreaks this summer, with Clemson making waves after announcing 28 positive tests, including 23 from student-athletes. By early July, that total number had risen to 53 (including 47 student-athletes). Meanwhile, LSU had a large number of players placed in quarantine. In the aftermath, a number of high-profile programs, including Ohio State, Michigan State and North Carolina, paused workouts because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

June 19: UCLA players demand independent testing

In the first sign the empowerment of players created during the social justice protests would carry over to the COVID-19 protocols, UCLA players sent a letter to the school demanding third-party testing oversight during practices, as well as better enforcement of safety protocols.

June 23: Franklin, Clawson make tough choices

On HBO's "Real Sports," Penn State coach James Franklin said he would avoid seeing his family during the football season in order to protect his daughter, who has sickle cell disease, from possible exposure. Two days later, Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said he'd do the same because of his wife's reduced immune system due to cancer treatment, later adding, "I'd be shocked if every staff in America doesn't have someone who has to make a decision."

July 8: Ivy League postpones fall sports

Like with college basketball back in March, the first big blow to fall football came from the Ivy League, which announced it would not play fall sports because of the coronavirus pandemic. With an eye toward playing in the spring, the league nixed its fall plans.

July 9: Big Ten cuts non-conference play, ACC, SEC follow

The Big Ten made the first move that altered the 2020 season when it announced its members would only participate in conference play. Plans for a 10-game conference-only season were quickly followed by the Pac-12, with the ACC deciding weeks later to do the same, only with one extra non-conference game. The ACC's plan came with hopes of maintaining rivalry games against the SEC, but that was nixed, too, when the SEC decided it would only play conference games as well.

July 13: Patriot League follows suit

The dominos continued to fall when the Patriot League quickly followed the Ivy League in nixing its fall sports season. Unlike the Ivy League, however, the Patriot League had numerous games scheduled vs. FBS opponents, making it the first league to impact the FBS season.

July 16: NCAA issues testing guidelines

As part of its six-week return-to-play plans, the NCAA issued new guidelines requiring minimum testing protocols and contact tracing infrastructure within programs. The recommendations included testing all players within 72 hours of a game and 14-day quarantines for anyone exposed to COVID-19.

July 23: Wisconsin warns of financial collapse

In the months since the NCAA tournament was canceled, colleges had grappled with the potential economic fallout of a diminished or canceled football season, but the raw numbers became woefully clear when Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez announced the school could lose more than $100 million if football wasn't played in 2020.

July 29: Farley opts out of 2020 season

Projected first-round pickCaleb Farley became the first big-name player to decide to sit out the 2020 season, making the announcement in a letter published by NBC Sports in which he said lax safety protocols at Virginia Tech, including a trip several teammates made to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, contributed to his decision. In the aftermath, the sport would see a wave of other stars also depart campus early, including Minnesota's Rashod Bateman, Miami's Gregory Rousseau and Penn State's Micah Parsons.

Aug. 2: Pac-12 sends a message

A group of players from the Pac-12 penned a letter posted in The Players' Tribune threatening to opt out of the season en masse if a number of demands were not met, including improved safety protocols during the COVID-19 outbreak, additional focus from schools on social justice issues, and revenue sharing from the league. The letter would be followed by similar demands -- though not always including requests for revenue sharing -- from the Big Ten and AAC, with talk of player unionization beginning to grow.

Aug. 3: Potential long-term risks appear

In a Facebook post, the mother of Indiana offensive lineman Brady Feeney discussed her son's health problems after contracting COVID-19. Feeney, she said, was hospitalized and now had concerns about possible heart issues. In the following days, significant complications impacting Clemson's Xavier Thomas and Houston's Sedrick Williams would also come to light.

Aug. 5: UConn ends its season

Connecticut became the first FBS program to announce it would halt all fall sports, citing "safety challenges" created by COVID-19. UConn left the American Athletic Conference at the conclusion of the 2019-20 sports season, which created a perfect storm of schedule challenges, financial shortcomings and a lack of conference support.

Aug. 7: FCS shelves fall championships

While the entirety of FCS had yet to decide on nixing the fall season, eight of the 13 conferences decided to postpone play until the spring, officially putting an end to the division's annual playoff.

Aug. 7: Syracuse sits out practice

Amid growing concerns over safety protocols -- not on their own campus but among potential opponents -- Syracuse football players sat out the first two days of fall camp practices, instead meeting with coaches and administrators to discuss their worries.

Aug. 8: The MAC postpones its season

The Mid-American Conference became the first FBS league to nix its fall season. Amid concerns first raised by Northern Illinois about the safety of players, the league decided to postpone all fall sporting events with an eye toward playing games in the spring instead.

Aug. 9: #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay Movements

Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and dozens of other college football stars took to social media to make it clear that they wanted to play football this fall. What started as a series of tweets and Instagram posts from around the country culminated with a brief open letter to leadership asking for universally mandated safety protocols, guaranteed eligibility extensions for players who opt out and the creation of a college football players' association that would give the athletes a voice in the decision-making.

Aug. 10: Coaches speak up, Mountain West drops out

In a day of near constant rumors and speculation, numerous high-profile coaches voiced their fervent desire to play football. Michigan's Jim Harbaugh released a letter expounding on encouraging testing results. Louisville's Scott Satterfield lambasted the "yo-yo" decision-making from the Big Ten and Pac-12. Nebraska's Scott Frost even suggested the Cornhuskers could pack their bags and bolt the Big Ten for 2020, should the league cancel its season. Amid all the hypotheticals and hyperbole, however, the only real certainties came from Old Dominion and the Mountain West Conference, which both announced postponement of their seasons.

Aug. 11: Big Ten, Pac-12 call off fall sports

After days of rumors, the Big Ten finally made it official Tuesday, postponing all fall sports with an eye toward playing in the spring, the first Power 5 league to scrap a fall season. "After hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall," commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement announcing the decision.

Not soon afterward, The Pac-12 followed suit, as expected, announcing the league would also move toward a spring schedule, postponing all fall sports.

The Big 12 then weighed in, announcing its intent to move forward with fall football.The news comes on the heels of the league reportedly being split on the decision of whether to play.

Aug. 12: The Big 12 intends to play in fall

After some contentious discussions among the league's CEOs, the Big 12 officially announced its intention to move forward with the fall season. "Reasonable people can disagree on it," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. "The Pac-12 and the Big Ten are seeing much of the same information that we're seeing. But our board believes in our scientists and has come to a conclusion that is different and so have the leadership of the SEC and the ACC." That was enough to keep Conference USA going, too, with its leadership announcing tentative plans to play this fall. Meanwhile, the NCAA's doctors offered less than encouraging reports, with one advisor saying, "I feel like the Titanic. We have hit the iceberg, and we're trying to make decisions of what time should we have the band play."

Aug. 13: Controversy at Florida State

One of the biggest reasons for optimism for fall football was largely encouraging testing numbers coming from campuses throughout the ACC, SEC and Big 12. But a trio of Florida State receivers raised the specter of dishonesty in how COVID-19 data was being shared, potentially undermining the system. Head coach Mike Norvell quickly came out in the school's defense, saying allegations of lies and lack of transparency were patently false, and that Florida State was following all proper protocols. Meanwhile, the Southland Conference became yet another FCS league to opt for spring football, but it left the door open for league members to play non-conference games this fall at their discretion. How might spring football work? Purdue coach Jeff Brohm became the first to offer a model for an eight-game regular season.

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