Inside the MAC's decision to postpone fall sports

'My biggest concern is the amount of money we could potentially be on the hook for if a student-athlete contracts the virus.'

Before the Mid-American Conference (MAC) became the first FBS conference to punt on the fall sports season, documents and emails obtained by Out of Bounds show that nearly 40 percent of one MAC school’s fall-sport athletes indicated they were more likely to opt out than play, and another MAC school had prepared to not compete in fall sports, even if the rest of the conference had decided to move ahead with competition.

Prior to the MAC’s decision to postpone fall sports, a senior-level administrator from the latter of the two schools referenced above said her biggest concern for the school, after the NCAA Board of Governors announced its fall championship requirements, was the amount of money the university could potentially owe in medical expenses if one of its athletes caught the virus.

The MAC officially announced its decision on Aug. 8, but by mid-to-late July, Kent State had already prepared a statement in the case that fall sports were called off. In an email sent on Aug. 6 – two days before the MAC’s official announcement – Kent State President Todd Diacon wrote that “we have a short statement prepared if fall sports are cancelled. I saw this several weeks ago, but would like to see it again.” However, on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 5 – just three days before the MAC postponed fall sports – Rebecca Murphy, Kent State’s Associate Vice President for University Communications and External Affairs, emailed the draft of a pre-emptive statement about fall sports to two colleagues, saying, “A draft statement if we decide to cancel fall sports….it doesn’t look like this is where it’s going at this point, but just in case….”

That same day, Courtney Vinson, a Senior Associate Athletic Director of Sports Administration at Northern Illinois, wrote to members of the university’s athletic department about updates from the NCAA Board of Governors:

“My biggest concern is the amount of money we could potentially be on the hook for if a student-athlete contracts the virus. The expectation is that we follow the NCAA’s guidelines for testing. There is a reporting line for families and student-athletes who believe that institutions are not following federal, state, and local COVID-19 guidelines and there is a medical expense expectation that we will cover ALL costs related to a COVID-19 positives [sic] so that the SA and their family. They also ban the use of medical exemption waivers.”

Previously: Is a risk acknowledgment form different than a waiver? Is it even enforceable?

A message sent to Northern Illinois season ticket holders last month – a copy of which is shown later in this newsletter – referenced “extensive departmental expenses associated with COVID-19” that were estimated at approximately $3 million. Potential medical expenses would be added onto that figure.

The athletic and strategic communications departments at Northern Illinois had been working collaboratively on two different potential messages, according to emails obtained by Out of Bounds. One would be a unified message with the MAC and the second would be an “Alternate Plan B” message about a potential decision for Northern Illinois that would’ve been different than the rest of the MAC.

On Wednesday, Aug. 5, Northern Illinois AD Sean Frazier emailed Executive Assistant to the President Liz Wright from his personal Gmail account that read in part:

Here is a couple of list [sic] of Donor contacts, one if go with the MAC on an announcement and one if we go alone. The alone list is longer.

Frazier had received the lists from Senior Associate AD for Development & Revenue Generation TJ Feuerbach after the two had spoken.

On Thursday, Aug. 6, Northern Illinois Associate Athletic Director Donna Turner emailed Senior Associate Athletic Director Ryan Sedevie the draft of a statement that read:

While the Mid-American Conference announced today that all of its members except NIU will continue planning for fall sports seasons beginning Sept. 10, NIU made an individual institutional decision to delay until spring competitions for its four fall sports programs, each of which have been designated as high risk by the NCAA.

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Northern Illinois appeared ready to send out a press release on Thursday, Aug. 6. In an email that Northern Illinois Board of Trustees Vice Chair Eric Wasowicz sent on Saturday, Aug. 8, he noted that the then-current press release read “Thursday’s announcement,” rather than “Saturday’s.”

“Shouldn’t the last paragraph say ‘Saturday’s announcement’ instead of Thursday?” he wrote. “I know this was written for Thursday but we held off.”

On Friday, Aug. 7, the day after Northern Illinois had readied its press release about making a different decision regarding fall sports than the rest of the conference, Kent State’s Faculty Athletics Representative Kathy Wilson emailed President Todd Diacon, Athletic Director Joel Nielsen and Vice President and University Secretary Charlene Reed the final results of an athlete survey conducted by the university. The university had a response rate of 67 percent, with 311 of 464 athletes completing the survey. More than half of the respondents – 162 of 311 – compete in a fall sport.

The survey showed that 18 percent of the respondents who were fall-sport athletes were “very likely to opt out” and 19.3 percent were “somewhat likely to opt out,” meaning 37.3 percent of Kent State’s fall-sport respondents indicated they were more likely to opt out than play.

“The fact we have heard from 2/3rds of our student athletes provides confidence in the generalizability of the results to the full student athlete population,” wrote Wilson, the Faculty Athletics Representative.

Across all sports, more than 52 percent of the Kent State athletes who responded said they were very likely to play this year, while 13.3 percent were very likely to opt out and 14.6 percent were somewhat likely to opt out – a total of 27.9 percent who were more likely to opt out than play. “While I have been giving everything in percent,” Wilson wrote, “it is important to recognize this is 86 student athletes who completed the survey saying they are very or somewhat likely to opt out for the year.”

The survey went live before 1 p.m. ET on Aug. 5 and Wilson provided periodical updates to Kent State’s leadership as more athletes responded. In several of the updates, she highlighted the percent of fall athletes who indicated they were likely to opt out of the 2020-21 season.

With the passing of each season – from fall to winter to spring – the percentage of athletes who were “very likely to play” increased by roughly 10 percent.

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There were three questions on the survey that Kent State athletes answered on a scale:

  • How comfortable do you feel competing in intercollegiate athletics this year?

  • If it were up to you, would you like to see Kent State proceed with competitions this fall?

  • How likely are you to choose as an individual to opt out of playing this year?

Compared to the number of Kent State athletes who said they were somewhat or very likely to opt out, an even higher percentage of athletes said they did not feel comfortable with competing in athletics this year or that they preferred Kent State not to proceed with competition this fall.

Exactly half of the respondents who participate in a fall sport said they had a slight or strong preference for Kent State not to play sports in the fall. Across all sports, that percentage was 34 percent.

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On the comfortable versus uncomfortable scale, just over 56 percent of respondents who participate in a fall sport said they were “uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” about competing in college athletics this year.

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“Note that with 162 fall student athletes completing the survey, this does not reflect just one sport/team,” Wilson wrote.

Across all sports, roughly 42 percent of respondents expressed some degree of discomfort in competing in college athletics this year.

Kent State athletes also had the opportunity to provide comments to the following questions:

  • What concerns, if any, do you have about competing in intercollegiate athletics this year?

  • If you have other feedback you would like to provide, please do so here.

In response to the first question, there were 55 comments about health/contracting COVID-19 – the most of any category of response, according to Wilson – including:

  • “Dying”

  • “Not worth risking my own health to please other people”

  • “My parents are immune deficient and I’m scared to bring it home”

  • “Fatality”

Ultimately, the conference’s motion passed unanimously, 12-0, to postpone its fall sports seasons in favor of a plan to provide fall sports competition in the spring of 2021, ending a roller coaster of a month for the MAC.

Roughly a month earlier, the MAC was dealing with the fallout from the Big Ten’s announcement that it would play conference-only schedules for its fall sports. The two conferences share a similar geographic footprint and MAC football teams annually play Big Ten opponents in lucrative “buy” games. Seven MAC schools were scheduled to play at least one game against a Big Ten opponent this fall – all of which were canceled. That led to Central Michigan being in contact with Army, Iowa State, Notre Dame and UConn about possible non-conference football games, and in a July email, Kent State Athletic Director Joel Nielsen said he didn’t plan to make any comments to a reporter about the school losing its non-conference football game against Penn State, “due to the chance that it may end up in litigation.”

From the prospect of potential litigation to trying to schedule high-profile non-conference college football games on the fly, schools in the MAC had a lot on their plates after the Big Ten’s conference-only announcement and after the Ivy League and Patriot League announced they wouldn’t be holding fall sports.

The MAC went from being affected by other conferences’ scheduling decisions to becoming the first FBS conference to postpone fall sports.

“I fully support the Mid-American Conference Presidents’ decision,” said Nielsen, Kent State’s Athletic Director, in an email on Aug. 8 after President Todd Diacon sent an email to the school’s athletes with the news that the MAC had postponed fall sports.

Here are some of the talking points the conference provided to its member schools after it reached the decision to postpone fall sports, including:

  • “There are simply too many unknowns for us to put our student-athletes in a position that is not clearly understood.”

  • “The MAC looks forward to the day where we can play safely and in stadiums filled with fans.”

  • “Today’s action is not a reflection of any societal issues B1G/PAC-12 conversations.”

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On the morning of Aug. 8, after the MAC presidents voted to postpone fall sports, Northern Illinois President Lisa Freeman emailed members of the school’s athletic department with the news, adding, “Talking points that we want to emphasize is that about health and safety in contact sports with travel schedule- not about money and not indicative of safety issues for typical students in classrooms.”

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For at least a few MAC schools, it was important for them to try to make a distinction between the potential health risks related to college athletics, while expressing that students engaged in in-person learning wouldn’t face the same risks, as Northern Illinois President Freeman wrote in the email above. Northern Illinois leaders looked at Central Michigan’s announcement, which stated in part, “Unlike classroom, residence hall and campus settings, the field of competition rarely allows for safe social distancing and may complicate the use of masks or face coverings.”

“I think LCF [Lisa C. Freeman] likes the CMU part about athletics being different than classrooms but that concept can be conveyed as a talking point,” Northern Illinois Senior Director of Institutional Communications Lisa Miner wrote in an email.

Associate Athletic Director Donna Turner responded, “Freeman echoed [Northern Illinois Athletic Director Sean] Frazier’s sentiments and said while NIU is confident in its ability to ‘Protect the Pack’ and welcome students back to campus, classrooms and residence halls later this month, exposing student-athletes to outside competition and travel presents an unacceptable level of risk at this time.”

In addition to navigating the public relations of trying to explain why living in a college dorm and going to class was safe but participating in college athletics wasn’t, universities in the MAC had to try to salvage as much of their 2020 football revenue as possible.

Multiple MAC schools offered a donation option for football season ticket holders, where their fall ticket plans could be turned into a donation to the athletic department.

Kent State’s message to football season ticket holders included an option for a full refund or to turn their ticket purchase into a 100-percent tax deductible donation to the athletic department. A previous version of the message to ticket holders had the line, “All season ticket seating will continue to be honored into the 2021 season, regardless of your decision,” but the line was removed during the editing process.

In an email to the Bowling Green ticket holder database, Athletic Director Bob Moosbrugger highlighted the loss of $2.2 million from the school missing out on two games scheduled against Big Ten opponents.

The update Northern Illinois sent to its season ticket holders provided them with three options: a donation, rollover or refund. The university provided an incentive for the donation option, such that season ticket holders who make a donation in 2020 and 2021 will have their donor benefits upgraded by one Huskie Athletic Fund membership level in the second year.

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In their external messaging and actions, MAC university presidents and athletic directors were forced to balance the shutting down of fall sports while inviting the rest of the student body to return to campus, and comforting fans who just lost a football season while also trying to convince those same fans that making a donation was an appealing option despite a fall without football.

When Kent State President Todd Diacon informed the university’s athletes in an email of the MAC’s decision to postpone fall sports, he wrote to them, in part:

It is important for you to know that you will keep your scholarship, and that we will engage with the NCAA to request an additional year of eligibility for those who seek it. It is also important to know that we are here for you, and your coaches will soon outline plans for workouts and team activities during the semester.

However, a previous version of his message may have made even more assurances – ones that a MAC school that’s not playing fall sports may not have been able to make.

During the process of editing Diacon’s statement, Vice President and University Secretary Charlene Reed emailed Diacon on Thursday, Aug. 6, saying, “I have been thinking overnight about that fourth paragraph and wonder if it goes too far in assurances, given the personnel cuts the department is making to balance the budget. Also workouts and team activities—does that seem like they have to be here, instead of remote? Don’t want you to get into a corner or immediately the response to budget cuts be that it goes against your word.”

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Recap of last week’s newsletter

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“A lot of 19-year-olds have no legal knowledge at all, right? They’re freshmen in college, or whether you’re a freshman or senior, anyone who hasn’t been to law school obviously isn’t going to be well-versed in the law of whether these standard form adhesion contracts and these waiver contracts, especially, are enforceable or not, and many students might sign it thinking, ‘I’m bound to it,’ even though if they had good legal advice, they would know that many of these terms could be held contrary to public policy and not enforceable.”

Read the full newsletter here.


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Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at andrew.wittry@gmail.com or on Twitter.