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Several factors determined MAC's fate, including testing problems, no way to build a bubble

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The voices were solemn, but the decision was resolute.

Over the past few weeks, as Mid-American Conference leaders — presidents and athletic directors — began stepping up the frequency of their virtual meetings, it became increasingly clear there simply were too many obstacles for a fall sports season to commence.

And much of the MAC leadership believes the rest of the FBS conferences know it, too, even if they have yet to publicly acknowledge it. On Saturday, the MAC became the first FBS conference to officially scrap the upcoming season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eastern Michigan wide receiver Arthur Jackson III stiff-arms Western Michigan cornerback Anton Curtis during a game in October 2019 in Ypsilanti.

"It wouldn't shock me if some followed suit," Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee said in a Zoom chat with reporters. "And I would be surprised if some didn't."

There are nine other FBS conferences besides the MAC, and all nine have announced plans for the college football season, many of them limiting or eliminating the nonconference portion of the schedules.

But there is a growing belief in college circles that the MAC's decision will only be the beginning of the fall sports shutdown, with many decisions expected in the coming week as the target date for the start of the college football season nears.

The reasons are plentiful, but start with the health and safety of the college athletics — which should always be the first priority, from a moral perspective, but also is from a liability standpoint.

The NCAA recently told member institutions that should a student-athlete contract COVID-19, it will be the university's responsibility to cover medical expenses, essentially for life. That's especially worrisome given recent reports that while younger people in good shape often easily get over the disease, there can be longer-lasting effects. Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, 27, recently was shut down for the season, after a bout with the coronavirus left him with heart inflammation. 

"This disease, this deadly, contagious disease, is running our whole world, and it's gonna do what it's gonna do," said Kathy Beauregard, athletic director at Western Michigan.

"And we've gotta protect our student athletes."

The MAC's decision affects about 2,500 student-athletes, each of whom would've needed to be tested weekly during the season, according to recently released NCAA guidelines.

That also was a problematic situation, on a number of fronts. 

For starters, schools were to be responsible for covering the costs of the tests, which can run between $75 and $100 apiece. Do the math, and that's no small thing. There also was the issue of getting those test results returned in a timely manner. Some schools have had no issues there, while others have. It all depends on what lab you get connected to, and how backlogged that lab is.

Western, for instance, has had a quick turnaround time, working in conjunction with Bronson Methodist Hospital. Oakland University's basketball players, meanwhile, returned to campus in late June, took their tests and then waited 10 days to get the results — at which point, of course, the results don't mean much.

Such a delay in-season would essentially shut down a program.

"The tests only are as good as the minute you took it," Wetherbee said. "Budgetary, it is a concern, it's not cheap, obviously. Even UM and MSU and the Power Fives, they're all in the same boat."

There also is the issue of false positives, which have been seen too much — most notably, recently, with Detroit Lions quarterback Mathew Stafford. And if there are false positives, then there will be false negatives.

Finally, there's a so-called bubble. Sports that have restarted and been rather successful on the health front have had bubbles, including the PGA Tour (which had a mini-outbreak early in it's restart, and was proactive in stepping up safety protocols), the NBA and the NHL. Major League Baseball is playing without a bubble, and has suffered two major outbreaks, shutting down the Miami Marlins' season for more than a week, and shutting down the St. Louis Cardinals' season for even longer — they haven't played a game since July 29.

Western Michigan and the other MAC football teams will try to make a go of it in the spring.

College athletes — the MAC's fall shutdown includes football, men's and women's cross country, men's and women's soccer, field hockey and women's volleyball — have been able to be kept in a pseudo bubble since returning to campus last month, limiting the positive tests throughout much of the MAC. Western Michigan had fewer than five football players test positive, Beauregard said, and Eastern Michigan's positive rate is about 6%, Wetherbee said; Central Michigan hasn't released any specific figures.

The problem is, the bubble is next to impossible to keep up once the rest of the student population gets to campus — "That's not the world we live in on our college campus," MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said — and when the athletes start traveling, staying in hotels, and actually competing.

"We know our student athletes have parties, and all of a sudden all the teams are intermingling," Beauregard said. "That was another one of our concerns."

Speaking of actual competition, she said, "The social distancing can't happen. They're in each other's faces, they're sweating on each other. You can't ensure social distancing."

Other conferences, including the Big Ten, have had COVID-19 outbreaks, despite the so-called bubble during training season. Michigan State had to shut down football for two weeks, Rutgers had a major outbreak with more than two dozen positive tests, and Ohio State had an early shutdown, as well.

All told, the MAC determined that despite a short-term financial loss — the schools will lose millions from "buy" games, including Eastern (Missouri and Kentucky), Central (Nebraska and Northwestern) and Western (Notre Dame), plus there will be lost revenue from television contracts and ticket sales, which very well could lead to mass layoffs in athletic departments and more teams being eliminated (Central already has cut men's indoor and outdoor track and field) — the longer-term play was the right call.

The MAC is planning to hold competition for all its fall sports in the spring, though there were no immediate details what that would like.

That's appropriate, given the world we're living in. There are so many unknowns.

"There are things we don't completely understand about this virus at this point," said Steinbrecher, who noted the league relieved significantly on its medical experts in making its final decision. "We're trying to make the right decisions for our student athletes based on the information we have.

"This is simply a miserable decision.

"I am heartbroken we are in this place."

Fall sports plans

American: Eight conference games, up to four nonconference games

ACC: 10 conference games, one nonconference game

Big 12: Nine conference games, one nonconference game

Big Ten: 10 conference games

Conference USA: Eight conference games, nonconference games up to the schools

MAC: Season canceled

Mountain West: Eight conference games, up to two nonconference games

Pac-12: 10 conference games

SEC: 10 conference games

Sun Belt: Eight conference games, up to four nonconference games

Other divisions of note: The NCAA canceled Division II and III championships, and the Big Sky canceled fall sports, putting the FCS season in doubt. The Ivy League canceled fall sports last month.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984