Morehouse Cancels Football and Cross Country Because of Coronavirus

The historically black college in Atlanta is one of the first universities to cancel football in 2020 amid the pandemic.

By Alan Blinder and Billy Witz

New York Times

ATLANTA — Morehouse College, one of the country’s most celebrated historically black colleges, said that it had canceled its fall sports — football and cross country — because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Although a handful of other schools have canceled games, barely any have publicly abandoned their football seasons outright. At most colleges and universities, officials are planning for smaller crowds and the possibility of truncated schedules but have remained publicly optimistic about having a football season, which is often crucial to the finances of entire athletic programs.

But Morehouse said it had concluded that it could not safely play.

“Responsible leaders have to see us as being in a crisis, and a characteristic of a crisis is unpredictability,” David A. Thomas, the college president, said in a phone interview.

“Good management says any uncertainty you can take out of the equation you should take out. One element where we could create certainty is what are we going to do with athletics.”

Morehouse is a member of the N.C.A.A.’s Division II. It was scheduled to begin its football season on Sept. 5, with a game against Edward Waters College, an H.B.C.U. in Jacksonville, Fla.

Thomas said that Morehouse, which is in Atlanta, would honor its athletic scholarships, and that playing games without fans had not been a viable solution because the absence of spectators did not shield players from risk of infection.

The school also canceled its homecoming event, which typically draws close to 25,000 fans. It was scheduled for Oct. 17, one week after the oldest rivalry among black colleges — Morehouse’s game against Tuskegee University, which was moving to Birmingham, Ala., this year after being played in Columbus, Ga., since 1936.

“To make that decision would be the equivalent of canceling Michigan-Ohio State, Harvard-Yale, go down the line,” Thomas said.

In an interview, minutes after Morehouse’s announcement, Mark Emmert, the president of the N.C.A.A., said he expected more schools to upend their seasons or entire athletic programs for health or financial reasons. Colleges and universities across the country have already cut dozens of teams.

“I’m afraid and confident in my fear that we’ll see more sports be dropped, whether it’s programs or entire seasons canceled,” Emmert said. “And that’s really sad because we’re talking about opportunities that these student-athletes love to participate in, and it’s really, really important to their life and their growth and development.”

Although the N.C.A.A. canceled championship events for spring and summer sports, including the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, individual conferences and schools are in charge of their regular seasons. (The N.C.A.A. oversees the football championship in Division II, but it has no authority over the College Football Playoff, which has involved Football Bowl Subdivision teams like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.)

And if there is football, testing for the virus — which would cost between $100-$140 per test for MEAC schools — would easily reach six figures, according to Dennis Thomas, the commissioner of the conference, which has member schools running from Delaware down to Florida.

“It gets expensive,” said Thomas, whose schools can have close to 90 players on their football teams. “People are going to have to make decisions. Obviously, the A-5” — the so-called Autonomy Five conferences, which includes the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference — “is more financially able to do that than others.”

Charles McClelland, the commissioner of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, whose 10 black colleges range from Texas to Alabama, expected to have a better idea in several weeks of what a college football season might look like. But at the moment, all of his schools are in states where the infection rates are surging upward.

“We’re preparing to start but very cautiously,” he said. “We have plans to start, start late, start and then stop and then start again, and not play at all. We’ll react whatever direction Covid goes and adjust.”

And Greg Sankey, the commissioner of the SEC, said leagues and schools were monitoring the decisions of others.

“We’re all connected,” said Sankey, whose league includes Georgia, about a 90-minute drive from Morehouse’s campus in Atlanta. “We’ll certainly be paying attention to what goes on around us.”

The California Collegiate Athletic Association, which like Morehouse competes at the Division II level, announced last month that it would suspend fall sports after the California State University chancellor announced that with few exceptions, classes in the fall would be conducted online. The conference sponsors soccer, women’s volleyball and cross country, but does not play football.

Government orders for quarantines of travelers could also be important factors for the football season, which is scheduled to begin in earnest around the first weekend in September.

“Playing football safely is an enormously challenging thing,” Emmert said. “And it’s going to look different across the country.”

At least four games that were previously canceled at the Football Championship Subdivision level involved H.B.C.U.s. And no schools in two leading H.B.C.U. conferences — the Southwestern Athletic Conference and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference — have called their football players back to campus to begin voluntary workouts, something many Division I schools have already done. Players in those conferences are not expected to arrive until after July 4 weekend.

If the decision-making on football within black colleges has veered toward cautious, one factor could be fewer financial pressures to play compared to, say, Alabama or Georgia. Television deals are nowhere near as lucrative, and most H.B.C.U. teams rely heavily on funding from their institutions. If there is no football, home teams would save money by not having to pay visiting teams, and there would be significant costs savings — particularly for travel.

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