By Greg Echlin – Kansas News Service
BALDWIN CITY, Kansas — College athletics departments in Kansas are needing to make a call as the number of coronavirus cases climb across the country and in their own ranks: Cancel fall sports, delay them until the spring, try in-conference games only or something in between.
At the center of it all is football — the high-contact sport that brings in money from the top college level to the small schools.
Dozens of schools have reported coronavirus cases among team members at voluntary workouts. And earlier this summer, Kansas State became one of the first major college teams in the country to shut the workouts down because of a high number of positive tests. The University of Kansas soon followed suit.
Already, three of the five major college conferences (Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference and Pac-12) have said they’ll only play against teams in their conference. The SEC will push back fall sports until at least Aug. 31. The Ivy and Patriot leagues are calling off their fall seasons entirely. The National Junior College Athletic Association voted to move football to the spring.
The Big 12, which includes KU and K-State, is expected to make its decision at the end of the month.
Without the money from big-time sports, universities that are already hurting financially after having to shift fully online in the spring will suffer. But so will the college towns.
Baker University drives the economy in Baldwin City, Kansas, a town of more than 4,700 that’s about a half-hour from Lawrence. Of the roughly 800-plus students on campus at Baker, 66% play one of the school’s 24 varsity sports.
In early June, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) announced that all of its schools — Baker included — would be reduced to nine regular-season games from 11. It’s still uncertain if fans will be allowed to attend the home games because the NAIA is leaving it up to schools to follow state and local requirements.
“The potential of not having our family at games, it’s something that’s going to be very, very different,” Baker athletics director Nate Houser said.
Already, Baldwin City’s 63rd annual Maple Leaf Festival has been cancelled for the fall. Apryl Strawn, the manager of Jo’s Diner in town, said the possibility of football without fans could be devastating to their business.
“It’ll be awful,” Strawn said. “It’ll be absolutely awful.”
The athletes’ health vs. financial health
Whether football is played in Baldwin City or at KU, the issue is the same: How do you avoid transmission of coronavirus in a sport where you’re lined up next to each other and hit other players constantly?
It’s a question KU Director of Athletics Jeff Long has been pondering all summer, and hasn’t been able to answer.
“We don’t know what the impact of practicing, closed-quarters hitting, tackling, all those things will have on a team,” Long said during a Kansas City Public Library virtual forum last month.
Players came back to campus for voluntary workouts from all over the country, including Texas, which has seen a dramatic spike in cases.
But epidemiologist Dr. Chris Hostler, who is a consultant for the NFL and the Big 12 (which KU and K-State are a part of), said coronavirus can be anywhere.
“We’re going to continue to have athletes and staff who are positives, who are coming from different areas of the country,” said Hostler, who is based in Durham, North Carolina. “Or even just remaining in their communities.”
And there’s another thing to consider: If any scholarship athlete, man or woman, chooses to sit out this fall as a health precaution, would he or she lose that full ride to college? The Pac-12 says no. With the Big 12 leaving it up to its members — K-State says it will honor scholarships but is still working out the terms of the language, while KU hadn’t provided its policy by the time this story went to print.
But more than anything, college administrators are aware of the added financial pinch if there are no college football games this fall.
“When people ask, ‘Why is it so important for you to play football, play basketball?” It’s to generate the revenue to fund that program,” Long said.
A major college football program like KU or K-State generates an average of $78 million according to a recent study by USA Today.
Within the Big 12, the Texas schools (Texas, Texas Tech, Baylor and TCU) figure to already see less money. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently mandated that no schools can have more than 50% fan capacity at home games.
But Hostler said what’s happening in Texas won’t dictate a uniform set of recommendations.
“What happens in West Virginia is going to be very different than what happens a couple states away in Iowa or in Oklahoma,” he said.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter.