Meiler: Prepare for the worst, sports fans

Mike Meiler

It's starting to feel like March again.

Remember March? That was all those years ago — or so it feels like — when coronavirus wasn't much more than a blip on our collective radar. Then Rudy Gobert tested positive and the NBA suspended its season on March 11, and within a week all sports around the country were either suspended our outright canceled.

This week has had a similar feel, at least at the collegiate level. Wednesday, the Ivy League announced it would not hold any sports this fall, Stanford cut 11 varsity programs, including wrestling, and Ohio State shut down voluntary football workouts due to the number of reporting athletes who tested positive. Thursday, the Big Ten announced all of its fall sports would play conference-only schedules, and reports surfaced that similar decisions could be coming from the Pac-12 and ACC. The NJCAA also had news Thursday, sharing that its Presidential Advisory Council recommended "a majority of competition move to the spring semester of 2021."

The Big Ten announcement had perhaps the largest ripple effect. College football brought in $4.1 billion to just the Power Five conferences last year, according to a USA Today report, accounting for over 60% of the annual operating revenues of those 50-plus schools. And that money trickles down. Wednesday's announcement means UB football, for instance, will not play its Sept. 19 buy game at Ohio State, losing out on a $1.7 million payday.

It'll be fascinating if there is college football this fall. While the financial incentive is there, much like the pros, the athletes don't have a share in it. How can a school ask its student-athletes to risk infection in order to make money from which they'll barely benefit?

There's no such incentive at the high school level. Outside of rewarding kids who've worked hard their entire lives to play sports — something I don't say lightly — what reason is there to to risk gathering to simply work out, let alone compete? Save for the small percentage of student-athletes with a real shot at a college scholarship, there isn't one.

What happens to those kids is another issue. Sport has a life cycle, from the pros down through high school. A new class graduates, sending high schoolers to college and college players into the pros. Those good enough to play professionally take the spots of other pros, who are either forced to retire or move to smaller roles or leagues.

You can't just skip a year and have everything go back to normal. Someone will be affected, more than likely the players on the margins. Low-level Division I college players might be forced to go D-2, D-2 to D-3 and so on.

Professional sports will happen, in some form or another. They're nearing a return entirely because there's money to be made. Professional athletes need their paychecks, too, and leagues seem to be doing right by allowing players uncomfortable with playing to sit out.

But nothing about this will be normal. And it won't be for some time. COVID-19 is turning the sports world on its head, and we won't get a clear picture of the fallout for years.

Respond to sports editor Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler or via email at mike.meiler@gnnewspaper.com.

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