What to Know About the Pac-12 in the Fall

What to Know About the Pac-12 in the Fall

Good morning.

College sports sit squarely at the intersection of knotted debates over how to address longstanding racial inequity, workers’ rights, and how to safely reopen college campuses in the midst of a pandemic.

Of course, California colleges and their students are at the fore of many of those conversations.

My colleague Alan Blinder covers college sports, so I asked him to put the latest moves by the Pac-12 into broader context. Here’s our conversation:

You reported that the Pac-12 won’t play football in the fall, but may try to play in the spring. What’s the status of that plan? And what might be deciding factors over how that plays out?

We’re a long way off from knowing whether there will be spring football.

The virus looms as the largest factor, and the Pac-12’s medical advisers have expressed concerns over everything from testing capacity to the long-term effects of Covid-19 on athletes.

But the virus coming under greater control is not the only matter the Pac-12, or any other league, will have to assess. University officials will also be looking at issues like broadcast contracts, the risks of playing two seasons of football in a calendar year and how spring competitions might affect players planning to enter the N.F.L. draft.

There’s also the question of what spring teams would even be playing for: If the College Football Playoff holds its national championship game, as scheduled, on Jan. 11, will the sport’s leaders come up with a title model for schools that temporarily embrace spring football? Too soon to say.

[Read the full story about the Pac-12’s move to postpone football.]

Pac-12 players have also called for greater health protections and preserving eligibility, which seems to fall in line with broader efforts to recognize that college athletes’ work should be treated as professional, well, work. How does California’s new law allowing college athletes to be compensated fit with what they’re asking for?

Some of the demands from Pac-12 players overlapped with the aims of the California law: allowing athletes to do things like hiring agents, signing endorsement deals and selling their autographs. But other proposals went well beyond the California plan, which, for example, didn’t give athletes an explicit cut of the revenue that schools earn from sports. (Some players, for example, argued that athletes should receive half of the money generated by their sports. That request isn’t going anywhere fast, or maybe ever.)

Pressured in part by the California law, which isn’t scheduled to take effect until 2023, the N.C.A.A. is expected to vote on proposals around the matter of whether players should be able to profit off their fame in January, and there is good reason to think the association will loosen its longstanding restrictions.

There’s also discussion in Washington about a federal government-backed standard that could relegate California’s approach to the sidelines, so to speak. But what is unmistakable is that the activity in California last year turbocharged the players’ rights movement.

As the athletic director at Miami told me back in January, “The situation in California really just fast-tracked everything.”

[Read a conversation with Gov. Gavin Newsom about why he backed the new law.]

You’ve also reported how dozens of other states have followed California’s lead in proposing similar laws. Do you think that the Pac-12 players could inspire athletes in other conferences to speak up, particularly in light of broader reckonings over racial justice in education and sports?

They already have.

Last week, when the #WeWantToPlay movement gained a lot of traction, particularly in the South and the Midwest, Pac-12 players were deeply involved in elevating that message. (A Washington State player actually designed the graphic that players from places like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State tweeted.)

We’re in a moment of student-athletes feeling emboldened and empowered — in recent months, we’ve seen players taking vigorous public stands on racial justice that universities would have tried to silence not all that long ago — and the willingness of some Pac-12 players to stand up to the league did not go unnoticed across the country.

How much do you think California schools will be hurt financially without a football season? How do you think we’ll see that ripple through the state’s universities?

It depends on the school. All of the universities with football teams will suffer financial consequences without games and the money that pours in from broadcast rights. But it also stands to reason that programs, like the University of Southern California, that draw more fans than others to their games are more likely to see a drop-off in revenue because they’ll miss out on more sales of tickets and (overpriced) hot dogs.

In 2018, football accounted for about 40 percent of the roughly $15 billion college sports industry and helped underwrite many sports that draw fewer fans and less attention. Making matters worse, the football cancellations are coming on the heels of another shock to the college sports economy: the decisions not to hold this year’s national basketball tournaments.

The Pac-12 is keenly aware of the potentially fragile finances of its member schools. The Mercury News, for example, reported recently that the league was preparing a loan program that would make up to $83 million available to each of its universities.

And remember that the Pac-12 is not the only conference to have called off football for now. The Mountain West, for example, which includes Fresno State, San Diego State and San Jose State, won’t be playing either. So they will have significant financial challenges to work through, too.

[See where coronavirus cases have been linked to colleges.]

And lastly: What are you going to be watching most closely going forward?

The immediate question is whether any of the so-called Power 5 leagues will actually play this fall. The Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Southeastern Conferences are still holding out hopes for seasons, but if any of them change their minds, everything could crumble.

The financial repercussions of the pandemic will be enormous for college sports, just like they are for the rest of our society. So looking down the line, I wonder whether we might see anything approaching what critics might call a right-sizing of college sports.

But we won’t be able to truly understand the depth of the financial crises for athletic departments until sports resume in some consistent form. So one thing we’ll certainly be watching is how much leagues across the country adhere to the advice of their medical experts, especially if the monetary losses keep piling up.

(This article is part of the California Today newsletter. Sign up to get it by email.)

  • Across California, a heat wave meant power was shut off for thousands to avoid overloading the electric grid. And rising coronavirus cases mean many places for people to shelter from the heat, like public libraries or pools, are closed. [The New York Times]

Track California’s coronavirus cases by county. [The New York Times]

  • And unusually hot and stormy weather in the Bay Area is expected to linger. [The San Francisco Chronicle]

  • A group of teenagers and their teacher left San Francisco and are biking across the country. They’re learning a lot about America. [The New York Times]

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: [email protected]. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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