Canceling college football is coming down to dollars and sense

He’s 90 now, and aside from a “dadgum left hip” problem that has hindered walking, former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden says he feels “good.”

Well, except for the possibility that there will be no college football this fall.

“I’m like everybody else in America. I miss football and I’d sure like to see it,” Bowden told NBC News. “It’ll seem strange in the fall not having football, but that might occur.”

Welcome to the new normal of college sports during the COVID-19 pandemic, where elite college athletic conferences such as the Big Ten and the Pac-12 already canceled their fall sports seasons this week over concerns about the health and safety of student-athletes. The Big East Conference joined the growing list Wednesday evening.

Aug. 12, 202001:56

“Our primary responsibility is to make the best possible decisions in the interest of our students, faculty and staff,” Morton Schapiro, chair of the Big Ten council of presidents/chancellors and the president of Northwestern University, said in a statement.

Other powerhouse conferences like the SEC and ACC, however, are moving ahead with plans to start their fall sports seasons. That means Bowden’s former team, the Seminoles, are scheduled to open the 2020 season at home against Georgia Tech on Sept. 12.

Everyone from President Donald Trump to star Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence to Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez are weighing in on the fate of college sports for the next few months, with Trump tweeting Monday, “Play College Football!”

Trump also retweeted Lawrence’s Twitter post from early Monday morning, which featured an image of a chalkboard and a list of requirements that the Power 5 athletic conferences — SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 — should meet, including that athletes should be able to opt out of playing this year and still maintain their eligibility. Lawrence’s tweet also included the hashtags “#WEAREUNITED,” and “#WEWANTTOPLAY.” The Lawrence tweet came a day before the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced they were bowing out of fall sports.

“In the end there were too many questions that we couldn’t answer, and the doctors didn’t have answers and still were looking for those answers and felt it was important for us to finally make the decision not to play this fall,” Alvarez, whose Wisconsin Badgers is part of the Big Ten Conference, said in a video statement.

The decisions by athletic conferences on whether to play come as medical and science data pertaining to the coronavirus is constantly evolving; universities face huge financial losses by choosing not to play this fall; and the longstanding inequalities that exist in college sports are again part of the national debate — schools make billions of dollars from the entertainment that college athletes provide, yet those student athletes receive no compensation and aren’t represented by a union.

“I think it’s probably a wise decision,” Dr. Dean Winslow, a Stanford University professor of medicine and infectious diseases expert, said of the decisions by some college conferences to suspend or postpone fall sports. “College sports, you have to put that within a larger context of the transmission of COVID-19 on university campuses. I think we are going to be dealing with COVID-19 well into the middle, if not most of 2021, as well as the rest of this year.”

“No one is immune to serious complications from this disease,” added Winslow, who has been on the front lines this year treating COVID-19 patients. “It’s definitely a very serious pathogen.”

Michael Hausfeld, a prominent Washington antitrust lawyer, successfully represented former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon and other plaintiffs in a landmark class-action lawsuit against the NCAA. The NCAA was accused of violating antitrust laws by not compensating college athletes when using their names, likenesses and images for commercial use. Hausfeld told NBC News that all college sports should be suspended for now, and that universities and schools that decide to forge ahead with a fall athletic season open the door to a possible flood of litigation.

“I’m not in favor for all the reasons that were expressed by the conferences that have rescheduled the season or postponed it,” Hausfeld said. “There is no way that they feel science and medicine has established that going forward with this season will be protective of the safety and health of the athletes as a whole.”

The NCAA Board of Governors announced this month that its member schools are prohibited from having student athletes “waive their legal rights regarding COVID-19 as a condition of athletics participation,” but Hausfeld said that even if that was the case, he does not think those waivers would hold.

“It’s just clear that everyone is concerned about that legal accountability, if there is a push ahead in any respect to return too quickly to normalcy and expose people,” Hausfeld said.

Gabe Feldman, the director of Tulane University’s sports law program, said that “liability is a concern for any entity that is opening its doors for whatever business they’re conducting right now.”

“With any risk of harm to a consumer, to an attendee, there is risk of liability,” he said. “The question is whether there is a provable cause of action, and whether there is a — in this case — breach of a duty.”

If the Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences play football in the spring, which is the current thinking, would schools and universities still reap the same financial success? Bowl games that are normally played during the holidays in late December and early January might not have the same cache if they are played in March or April.

“Even if they delay the games until the spring of 2021, it’s hard to see how the bowl games are put together. Anybody care about a New Year’s Day bowl at the end of March?” asked Marc Ganis, the president of the Chicago-based sports marketing firm Sportscorp Ltd.

Bowden agreed. Even though he sympathizes with the current crop of college football coaches who are witnessing their seasons get canceled because of COVID-19, Bowden said any games that are played this fall should have an asterisk next to the final score.

“The thing about it, let’s say they finish the season and they declare a national champion — it won’t mean a darn thing,” Bowden said. “There’s too many teams that can’t compete.”