Big Sky Conference athletic directors, presidents unanimously agreed to postpone fall sports

There’s a lot of pressure to get things right during an ever-changing global pandemic when the scientific method and release of new information occurs in real time. The Big Sky Presidents’ Council received firsthand experience with the pressure to make decisions regarding COVID-19.

The Big Sky Conference announced on Aug. 7 it would postpone football until the spring. It announced the same thing on Thursday regarding the remaining fall sports.

Athletes and coaches have expressed disappointment their seasons won’t happen on time. Some fans called the Presidents’ Council cowards for the decision, while others fully supported it. No matter how anyone personally feels, these decisions were not made lightly.

GREELEY, CO - June 4: University of Northern Colorado President Andy Feinstein listens to an attendee's question during a budget update follow-up forum Tuesday evening Jan., 29, 2019, in the Rocky Mountain Grand Ballroom at the University Center in Greeley. Other university presidents in the Big Sky Conference selected him as chairman of the Presidents' Council. (Michael Brian/
GREELEY, CO – June 4: University of Northern Colorado President Andy Feinstein listens to an attendee’s question during a budget update follow-up forum Tuesday evening Jan., 29, 2019, in the Rocky Mountain Grand Ballroom at the University Center in Greeley. Other university presidents in the Big Sky Conference selected him as chairman of the Presidents’ Council. (Michael Brian/

Andy Feinstein, University of Northern Colorado president and Big Sky Presidents’ Council chairman, said the main priority was to keep student-athletes safe and healthy.

“It was heart-wrenching,” Feinstein said. “As university president, it’s right up there with one of the most difficult decisions you make.”

‘It was unanimous’

The Big Sky postponed football until the spring, following the decisions of several other conferences, including the Mountain West and Rocky Mountain Athletic conferences. The Big Ten and Pac-12 also will not play football this autumn with the other Power Five conferences expected to follow suit in the coming weeks.

Feinstein said the athletic directors and presidents waited to gauge the decisions of other conferences, but football season was scheduled to begin at the end of August. Many teams were not practicing or did so on a limited basis.

“We said, let’s not kick the can any further than we have to. Let’s make a decision now to push it to spring but hold off on fall sports until we hear and see what other conferences are doing, what the NCAA is doing,” Feinstein said. “At some point, we came to the unanimous decision that it was the right time to postpone football. There wasn’t a lot of dissension in that.”

UNC Athletic Director Darren Dunn said the athletic directors discussed different options, but they ultimately decided to recommend postponement.

“It was unanimous. There wasn’t anyone against not playing,” Dunn said. “I think we all worked well together to come up with what we feel is the best decision right now.”

Once other conferences began postponing their remaining fall sports, the Big Sky did the same. It previously delayed the start of the season for Olympic sports and non-championship fall sports such as volleyball, soccer, golf, track and tennis until mid-September.

While many of those sports do not traditionally require a lot of personal contact, there was more to consider. Teams competition requires travel and lodging in different states. Both of these aspects make distancing and other precautionary steps difficult to achieve.

“The conversation wasn’t so much about the sport itself in competition, it was everything else around it,” Feinstein said.

Possibility of play

The Big Sky Presidents’ Council did not make its decisions in a vacuum. It relied on expertise from its Health and Safety Committee — which featured doctors, athletic trainers and administrators — to provide information on how schools would need to operate if competitions were held.

“They provided us with good information that helped us make the decision not to play,” Dunn said. “They didn’t say, ‘Hey, you should not play.’ They said, ‘If you do play, here are the things you’re going to have to do.’ It just didn’t make sense to us to play under those precautionary steps.”

One of the committee’s most significant recommendations was to test athletes at least once a week, a task that would not be feasible for the schools.

Feinstein said UNC doesn’t have the equipment capacity nor financial resources to test more than 100 football players much less the rest of the teams.

Schools also expressed concerns regarding the turnaround time to get COVID-19 test results. Feinstein said it can take anywhere from two days to two weeks if the university uses another lab.

The UNC Health Center has one machine that can do rapid testing and is expected to add another in the coming weeks. Still, the center will only have the capacity to process eight tests per hour, meaning it would take several days to process just the football team’s tests.

“How do we play football if we’re not going to get results back in a matter of days? That was really a concern for us,” Feinstein said. “(Testing) wasn’t the sole decision that we made for canceling, but it was like, ‘Can we meet the needs of the NCAA and our university and make sure our players are safe?’”

‘A sad day’

UNC expects an overall revenue shortfall of $24 million, partially due to a lack of athletic competitions this fall. The university is working to reduce the deficit through a number of ways.

Feinstein said limiting employee travel and closing campus this summer to include essential personnel only should help make up about $6 million. The school, with help from faculty, staff and students, is also reducing its budget by $10 million. It expects to introduce a cost-cutting plan and host a town hall-type event in the coming days.

Lastly, UNC will dip into its reserve fund. The school saved roughly $40 million and will use about $8 million due to the COVID-19 impact. Feinstein said the university invested in the reserves the last few years, but the pandemic caused an abrupt change to that.

“I look at that as rainy day funds, and it’s raining,” Feinstein said. “Let’s get in there and use that money for what it’s supposed to be used for.”

Some people might disagree with the decision, but Feinstein said he and the other Big Sky leaders have a responsibility to make the best decision to keep athletes and their campus communities safe.

Asking thousands of other students on campus to wear masks and practice distancing while athletes didn’t — whether at practice, during travel or competitions — with others in close proximity didn’t make sense. Feinstein said the student-athletes are leaders, and it was important to him that they set an example for how UNC was addressing the pandemic.

Even with the Big Sky leadership’s comfort with the decisions made, Feinstein called Thursday “a sad day” for the conference’s institutions and athletic programs.

“So many young people came to college not only to get a good education but to play competitive sports, and so many of us that don’t play sports enjoy watching them,” Feinstein said. “I was looking forward to the diversion. I was looking forward to the excitement. I was looking forward to beating CSU in football. That really hurt me a lot. I’m hoping that things get better, so we can have some sports and competition in the spring. Time will tell.”

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