ATLANTA — The Big Ten and the Pac-12 called off their football seasons before they started. The South’s premier college football conferences called a play for time.
Never was it more publicly clear than this week, five months after the N.C.A.A. and its conferences canceled basketball tournaments in response to the coronavirus crisis, that college sports leaders are sharply divided over the prospect of athletic competitions during a pandemic.
By midday on Wednesday, the Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Southeastern Conferences had all publicly broken with the Big Ten and Pac-12 and reinforced their ambitions to play beginning next month. The Big Ten and the Pac-12 concluded on Tuesday that it was simply too dangerous to try to play sports this fall.
“Reasonable people can disagree on it, and the Pac-12 and the Big Ten are seeing much of the same information that we’re seeing,” Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner, said after his league released its football schedule on Wednesday morning. “But our board believes in our scientists and has come to a conclusion that’s different, and so have the leadership of the SEC and the A.C.C.”
Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner, said in an interview that he had regarded the moves by other leagues, including smaller conferences, as “informative, not determinative.”
For officials in the SEC, the Big 12 and the A.C.C., the collective home of 14 of the last 15 national champions in football, salvaging a season is the lone route to delivering on what they pledged for players and pulling in the many hundreds of millions of shared dollars that help keep athletic departments, including lower profile sports, afloat. And as skeptics say those goals and needs collide with medical science and the notion of amateur athletics, conference and university officials insist that they would change their approaches if circumstances warranted.
But for a range of reasons across universities — they include students, budgets, politics, science and local culture — the leagues’ short-term strategies hinge on patience.
“We could look and understand in this new environment that time needed to be provided,” said Sankey, whose university presidents and chancellors wanted to gauge how their campuses fared once students returned en masse this month.
The Big 12 will allow nonconference games in September before advancing to league play on Sept. 26, the day the SEC season is to open.
“We just didn’t feel like there was a need to say we’ve got to stop today,” Keith Carter, the athletic director at Mississippi, a member of the SEC, said in an interview on Wednesday. “We’re not to the season yet. We’ve got a lot of things to figure out between now and Sept. 26, but we just feel like there’s a pathway to move forward today.”
Indeed, the choice the Big 12 announced on Wednesday may ultimately be regarded as a masterstroke that propped up the remnants of the college football season, or as a stopgap that merely postponed its collapse. The plot twists of college football are such that the Big 12, a conference that was on the verge of disappearing a decade ago, may have given the A.C.C. and the SEC enough political breathing room to try to press ahead despite what the Big Ten commissioner described on Tuesday as “too much uncertainty, too much risk.”
What any remaining teams will play for during a season that many players sought is somewhat hazy after the week’s upheaval.
“It’s too soon to say what the implications are,” Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff, said on Wednesday. “We will stay flexible.”
For now, to the surprise of some outside lawyers who see a liability crisis in the making, many of the nation’s finest, proudest football programs, including Alabama, Clemson, Louisiana State and Oklahoma, are wagering that they can endure a viral storm far better than many of their states have.
The Big 12 said Wednesday that its members would test football players three times a week. The SEC is trying to strike a deal with an outside company to standardize virus screenings throughout the conference. And the A.C.C., scheduled to start its season Sept. 10, plans to have its players tested within three days of a scheduled game. It said Tuesday that it would “continue to follow our process that has been in place for months and has served us well.”
“The virus is basically going to tell us where we can go and what we can do, but we feel like we have a good plan and protocols in place,” Carter said.
College sports leaders said they had learned from early testing efforts, which led to some teams across the country pausing workouts, tightening rules or spurring players to acknowledge the frightening perils of the virus. Still, many top universities have said little about the state of the virus on their campuses and within their athletic programs, even though officials fear that they could wind up with clusters of cases that could lead to lasting health consequences for some people.
New spikes, which many medical experts believe are all but inevitable as students return to classrooms and dormitories, could imperil the leagues’ plans. Bowlsby said the Big 12 would encounter “bumpy spots” in the fall, and he acknowledged that the virus and knowledge about it were fluid.
“What we thought was golden 60 days ago is garbage today,” he said.
These days, the warnings that football may not happen are perhaps more apparent than ever. Sankey said Wednesday that there were “no assurances of a season at this point.”
“Our runway is shortening,” Carter said. “If we feel like we can’t do this in a safe manner, we may pivot.”
What is more certain than any game happening is that college football is likely headed for a round of I-told-you-so jabs, depending on how the season and its risks unfold.
The central question is what those judgments might be based on: either a halt as urgent as the one that ended March’s basketball tournaments, or a team raising a title trophy without regret for having played.