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What Happens When Everyone Starts Cancelling Games Because of COVID-19?

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In a phrase, potential calamity.

NCAA Men’s Final Four - National Championship - Texas Tech v Virginia Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

It is undeniable that the COVID-19 pandemic has left its mark on the collegiate athletics world. Programs have been cut athletic activities have been suspended and restarted again and the sports world appears to be in flux.

But there is a looming concern that is hanging ominously in the air for programs nationwide: what happens when the pandemic starts affecting whether games can be played?

It’ll be one thing if the games themselves will be able to be played generally, but the next question that athletic departments need to address is whether teams will be able to travel in the wake of the pandemic.

We have already seen the potential for game cancellations in hockey, with a number of programs contemplating cancellation. It certainly stands to reason that non-hockey programs will also contemplate the risks associated with travel.

So what happens when a critical mass of games are cancelled? To answer that question, we need to turn to NCAA bylaws.

In order for an institution to maintain Division I status, the institution needs to either sponsor seven all-male or mixed programs along with seven all-female programs, or six all-male or mixed programs and eight female programs in order to maintain compliance with NCAA Bylaw 20.9.6. FBS programs are required to maintain 16 sports, in accordance with Bylaw 20.9.9.1. (The 60% rule referenced in Bylaw 20.9.9.2 was waived for this year.)

Easy enough, right? Well, not so fast. In order to legally sponsor a program, the program needs to maintain the minimum number of contests in order to remain compliant. To answer that question, we need to turn to Bylaw 20.9.6.3, where we are provided this table:

20.9.6.3 Compliance Requirements

Team Sports Minimum Contests Minimum Participants Individual Sports Minimum Contests Minimum Participants
Team Sports Minimum Contests Minimum Participants Individual Sports Minimum Contests Minimum Participants
Baseball 27 Women's Bowling 8 5
Basketball 25 Cross Country 4 5
Women's Beach Volleyball 8 Equestrian 6 12
Field Hockey 11 Men's Fencing 9 5
Football 9 Women's Fencing 9 5
Men's Ice Hockey 25 Golf 8 5
Women's Ice Hockey 20 Men's Gymnastics 9 6
Lacrosse 10 Women's Gymnastics 9 5
Women's Rowing 6 23 Rifle 8 4
Women's Rugby 9 Skiing 5 5
Soccer 11 Swimming and Diving 6 11
Softball 27 Tennis 12 5
Volleyball 19 Track and Field, Indoor 4 14
Men's Water Polo 15 Track and Field, Outdoor 4 14
Women's Water Polo 10 Women's Triathlon 4 3
Wrestling 13 7

There’s a lot to process there, but the upshot of that is that there are minimum requirements in order for the program to maintain Division I compliance under that bylaw. To give you an idea, BC’s men’s ice hockey team played 34 games last season, with 24 coming in conference to meet their requirement of 25 contests. Men’s soccer participated in 15 regular season contests last season with eight coming in conference to meet their requirement of eleven.

Now it should be noted that a number of programs played more games than the regular season (other men’s soccer programs, for example, in the ACC played more). However, obviously, those games are not guaranteed by their nature.

Obviously, in the best of circumstances, there are no problems meeting these requirements. However, obviously we are not in the best of circumstances, and these sponsorship requirements could become a recipe for disaster.

Say, for instance, a critical mass of programs decide to cancel all non-conference games in the fall, something that is not outside the realm of possibility. That puts a number of programs, including most football programs, out of compliance with these requirements right off the bat, and that is assuming we’re in a position where all programs can still play their full conference schedules. It also puts programs like BC men’s basketball which plays almost all of its non-conference slate, in the fall, in jeopardy, as much of the collegiate basketball playing world does as well. Men’s basketball, for reference, played 31 regular season and 20 conference games, which would lead BC five short of the requirement, and the program scrambling to meet compliance.

This is just one scenario. Countless possibilities are still in play, including programs down South refusing to come up North to play, or vice versa; or programs shuttering, leaving their future opponents scrambling to replace the game; or athletics being placed on hold due to a second wave of infections that makes playing athletics grossly irresponsible; or even cuts to athletic budgets getting to the point where long distance travel to comply even with conference requirements is not feasible. (In the words of Florida State’s AD, “God help us” if football can’t be played).

What this all leads up to is the real and distinct possibility that countless programs across the country are at risk of not being able to meet their minimum sponsorship requirements. If programs do not meet those contest requirements, the programs can’t count towards the programs requirement for Division I status. If athletic departments aren’t Division I compliant, programs will have to ask for a waiver, leaving their program’s status up to the NCAA.

Now we’ve been using BC as an example because it is familiar to the readers on this site, and it should be noted with 25 programs currently sponsored BC has entough of a firewall in place to likely avoid noncompliance, but it is a problem that every single athletic department across the country, particularly those with athletic offerings close the minimum, is at risk of facing.

The proper thing for the NCAA to do is to realize that this has the potential for calamity for its member institutions in the wake of COVID-19 and suspend the requirements. However, the NCAA announced in April that it would not consider any blanket waivers for program requirements, and there appears to be no sources that indicate that the NCAA has relented on its requirements for contests either, meaning programs like football and basketball will have to play 100% of the required games to hit the minimum.

Now the NCAA does have in place two provisions that could suspend the requirements for games played, Bylaws 20.9.6.3.10.1 and 20.9.6.3.10.2. Bylaw 20.9.6.3.10.1 states that, in the event an institution is not able to participate in the required number of contests due to unforeseen circumstances, the Strategic Vision and Planning Committee, by two-thirds majority, may approve individual waivers. Bylaw 20.9.6.3.10.2 indicates that, in a situation that: (a) The member institution can document that it had scheduled (for that academic year) the appropriate minimum number of contests under enforceable game contracts executed in writing; (b) An opponent canceled a game that it had contracted to play that academic year; and (c) Despite a good-faith effort, the institution was unable to re-arrange its schedule to play the appropriate minimum number of contests, the Committee can also grant a waiver via a two-thirds majority.

That leads to some tricky ground. What does a good-faith effort look like in COVID-19 era collegiate athletics? A second wave has been anticipated ever since the pandemic started, would that fit the requirements outlined in 20.9.6.3.10.1? A 20.9.6.3.10.2 waiver is certainly available to any teams who have games cancelled on them, but what of the teams who had to do the cancelling? And that has nothing to say about the reality that 20.9.6.3.10.1 and 20.9.6.3.10.2 appear to not have been envisioned for an event the size of the COVID-19 outbreak, so it remains to be seen if the NCAA will allow for relief under those bylaws in the event that completion of competitions becomes a problem for a number of institutions.

So as more programs shutter like the Alabama-Huntsville men’s hockey program did Friday, and as athletic competitions become less and less tenable, and as long-distance travel for some athletic departments becomes a luxury that they can’t afford, the NCAA has set up its member institutions for potential catastrophe.