Athletes at hundreds of colleges and universities won't participate in fall sports championships this year, after the NCAA's second- and third-tier divisions canceled postseason competitions Wednesday.
Division II and Division III officials nixed their fall postseasons after the NCAA's governing board announced earlier Wednesday that each division could make its own call on whether to cancel the competitions amid the coronavirus pandemic. But administrators for higher-profile NCAA Division I programs have yet to pull the plug.
Division I campus sports officials now have two weeks to make a decision about their fall championships, though top college sports conferences are setting out ambitious football schedules and the nation's blockbuster College Football Playoff says it's pressing ahead with minor changes to its operations this fall.
As of Wednesday, 11 of the 23 Division II conferences had announced they would not compete in sports during the traditional fall season, according to the NCAA.
Key requirements: Under rules the NCAA's board dictated Wednesday, athletes must be allowed to opt out of playing if they are worried about getting sick and can keep their scholarships if they have one. Fall championships the NCAA directly controls will not occur if at least half of eligible teams in a particular sport and division cancel or postpone their fall season.
“We have very serious concerns about the continuing high levels of COVID-19 infection in many parts of our nation,” the NCAA panel of college athletics administrators, presidents and chancellors said in its instructions to schools. “The board has determined that it will only support moving forward with fall championships and other postseason play if strict conditions are applied and adhered to and there is significant reduction in COVID-19 spread.”
The NCAA is barring member schools from forcing athletes to waive their legal rights if they want to play. Each NCAA division must also set out rules requiring schools to cover an athlete's medical costs if the individual catches coronavirus and the infection is linked to sports participation.
Member schools must also follow protocol the organization set out in mid-July as infections soared across the country. Those practices must be implemented for any activity that involves athletics, including practice or competition.
The guidelines do not support attempting sports in areas where there is "significant spread of the virus," the board said, advising schools to work with public health officials to shut down sports as changes in local public health conditions warrant.
“Student-athletes should never feel pressured into playing their sport if they do not believe it is safe to do so,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement. “These policies ensure they can make thoughtful, informed decisions about playing this fall.”
Fine print: The NCAA governing board said it “will actively monitor any fall championship approach, and after receiving information from a division, retains the ability to make a final determination that fall sports championships will be canceled.”
The guidance only applies to fall sports, and decisions about winter and spring athletics will be made later, the board said.
Deadline: NCAA divisions have until Aug. 14 to act on the required health and safety protocols, and must decide on fall championships by Aug. 21.