How Ivy League postponement affects women's basketball

The league's women's basketball teams could potentially begin play in January, but even that is not a sure thing

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The Princeton women’s basketball team warms up before a game at George Washington on November 10, 2019. Photo credit: Jenn Hatfield

On Wednesday afternoon, the Ivy League became the first Division I conference to announce that it will not have college sports through the end of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein broke the news on Twitter shortly before the Ivy League issued its press release.

The press release said that the decision to cancel sports was made because “athletics is expected to operate consistent with campus policies.” Ivy League schools have all announced their plans for the fall semester in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many are dramatically reducing the number of students who can live on campus. The league believes that canceling sports is consistent with schools’ assessment of the current health and safety risks of bringing students back to campus.

The Ivy League presidents elaborated on this reasoning in a joint statement:

“With the information available to us today regarding the continued spread of the virus, we simply do not believe we can create and maintain an environment for intercollegiate athletic competition that meets our requirements for safety and acceptable levels of risk, consistent with the policies that each of our schools is adopting as part of its reopening plans this fall.  

“We are entrusted to create and maintain an educational environment that is guided by health and safety considerations. There can be no greater responsibility — and that is the basis for this difficult decision.”

Because the Ivy League ruled out sports through the end of 2020, the decision affects not only fall sports, but also winter sports that typically begin play in the fall semester. Women’s basketball teams usually open their season in early November and start playing conference games in January, so this decision effectively eliminates the nonconference portion of the 2020-21 schedule for Ivy League schools, which will have ripple effects for their opponents.

Some experts are predicting that the Ivy League’s decision could be a tipping point for other conferences around the country, much as it was in March, when the Ivy League was the first conference to cancel its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Others counter that there is a much larger financial incentive to play football this fall in the Power 5 conferences than in the Ivy League, so fall sports may still be played at schools with more money at stake.

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) panned the financial argument and called on other conferences to follow the Ivy League’s lead.

“There may be differing infection and death rates across the country. But the vulnerability among college athletes playing team sports is the same everywhere,” he told USA Today Sports. “… If the other schools fail to follow the Ivy League's lead, it will be only because of the money. And, in fact, it will be another misguided act in a long litany of putting school profits ahead of the people who play for them.”

Although Ivy League sports will not be played this fall, the league is leaving open the possibility that fall sports can be played in the spring of 2021. Ivy League executive director Robin Harris told The Athletic that the league will next determine whether it is feasible to play winter sports, including the remainder of the basketball schedule, before making decisions about the spring.

Details about teams’ practice schedules are also pending, but the league’s press release stated that student-athletes will be able to practice during the fall semester “in accordance with each institution’s procedures and applicable state regulations.”

Last spring, the Ivy League’s decision to cancel its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments came as a surprise to many, and some observers—and players—criticized it as premature. It is a sign of how much things have changed that many people anticipated the league’s decision this time around or believed it would be the “most realistic” option. The CDC reports that, as of July 8, there have been nearly 3 million cases of COVID-19 in the United States and over 131,000 deaths. In just the seven states that are home to Ivy League schools, there have been over 13,700 new cases in the last seven days.

As Harris told the ESPN Radio show Spain and Company on Wednesday night, “It definitely wasn’t any easier to [cancel sports] a second time … but we also know again that it’s the right decision for our schools.”