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Ivy League punts football to 2021, could be referenced in future potential litigation




As of Wednesday, July 8th, the Ivy League has announced that it will place all sports on hold until January 2021 (at the earliest). Most notably, this includes football. While it goes without further explanation what this means for the Ivy League, it is the impact that this decision has on other leagues and conferences that will be the most significant.

The decision by the Ivy League will inevitably play a persuasive role in influencing other colleges and universities as they contemplate how to move forward with the COVID-19 pandemic. The presidents of the Ivy League reasoned that sports could not be played due to a multitude of factors, including: restrictions on student and staff travel, social distancing requirements, and limits on group gatherings.[1] Essentially, the presidents of these schools believe it would be too difficult to create and maintain a safe environment for college athletics given the current state of society and the COVID-19 pandemic.[2]

The Ivy League’s decision to suspend their athletics through the end of 2020 came before any other conference (although others soon followed). The Ivy League was likely first to make a decision because it is not nearly as affected by sports revenue as other conferences. This can be most easily illustrated through football. Football is widely known to be the most significant source of revenue in most athletics departments. Many universities have football revenue accounting for 70+ percent of the total athletic revenue, which shows exactly how important the football season is to the athletic departments of the schools.[3]

On the other hand, the Ivy League does not have the caliber of football that many other conferences enjoy and therefore do not rely on football revenue in the same way. This is due to a few reasons, most significantly being that the Ivy League plays at the Football Championship Subdivision level and the Ivy League does not allow for athletic scholarships.[4] These distinctions separate the Ivy League from many of the country’s larger college football programs and make them far less reliant on football revenue and athletics revenues in general.

If universities, especially those in the Power Five conferences, are unable to play football this fall, they will suffer from extreme losses in revenue. Football revenue has made universities reliant on the sport in supporting the rest of the athletics department. It has allowed schools to grow their athletic departments by adding a variety of sports that are not part of the “Big 3” college sports (football, basketball, and baseball). Almost all of the college sports outside of football either make minimal gains or lose money, and the revenue from football is used to balance the athletic budget.

The impact from the loss of football revenue will impact many of the non-revenue generating sports and lead to a widespread cut of these programs. Most recently, Stanford University announced that they will be cutting 11 varsity sports.[5] This is just one example of the multiple colleges that either have or will proceed forward by cutting lesser-known sports.

The Ivy League is uniquely situated with postponing/cancelling sports due to their lack of athletic scholarships as well, which is in direct contrast to the majority of major universities. For the rest of the universities that do award athletic scholarships, this raises an interesting question: If there is no football to play, will there still be a scholarship that the athletes receive? Stanford decided to honor all of their scholarship commitments to student-athletes, including those of the sports programs that were recently cut.[6] Other Division I universities have done the same thing,[7] but it may ultimately will become a program-by-program decision. When considering the grim financial situation athletics departments at universities may soon find themselves in, it is not hard to imagine universities being forced to make tough decisions on whether or not to honor scholarships or if they will even have the ability and funds to do so.

There is also potentially a major legal implication that the Ivy League’s decision will have on other universities. The question is whether this decision to suspend sports could be used in potential litigation against other universities and conferences that elect to move forward with fall sports and a football season. Could this decision potentially be used in a negligence action against a university for allowing sports to return and student-athletes being exposed/infected by COVID-19? It seems that the decisions by some schools and conferences not to have sports until 2021, combined with potential medical testimony from the United States top medical experts who do not seem keen on the resumption of football, may be enough for the foundation of a strong negligence case.


We are already seeing an impact from the Ivy League’s decision with the Big Ten Conference deciding on July 9th, just one day after the Ivy League’s decision, to limit its schedule to in-conference play. The Atlantic Coast Conference and Pac-12 very well could join the mix soon. Could the Big Ten’s decision to limit their schedule to in-conference play be enough to shield itself from liability in any potential negligence action? The decision will cut 36 opponents from the Big Ten conference schedule this fall, which may be deemed an appropriate safety measure and allow it to make the argument that they took at least minimum precautions.


Ultimately, the level of precaution that must be taken in a pandemic of this nature is utterly unclear, and it will be interesting to see what potential lawsuits determine. What is clear, however, is that time is of the essence for universities and conferences across the country to make these critical decisions. One can only hope that the decision makers properly view the health and safety of their student-athletes as a higher priority over having fall sports and generating revenue.

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Anthony is a third-year law student at Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

[1] Billy Witz, Ivy League Places All Sports on Hold Until January, New York Times (Jan. 8, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/08/sports/ncaafootball/ivy-league-fall-sports-football-coronavirus.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 1.

[5] Alex Scarborough, Stanford to cut 11 varsity sports, cites pandemic as breaking point, ESPN (July 8, 2020), https://www.espn.com/college-sports/story/_/id/29429478/stanford-cut-11-varsity-sports-cites-pandemic-breaking-point

[6] Id. [7] Tracker: College Sports Programs Cut During COVID-19 Pandemic, Business of College Sports, https://businessofcollegesports.com/tracker-college-sports-programs-cut-during-covid-19-pandemic/.

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