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Ivy League cancels basketball season and other winter sports because of COVID-19 concerns

The Ivies become the first NCAA Division I league to opt out of the basketball season.

No Ivy League basketball at the Palestra this winter.
No Ivy League basketball at the Palestra this winter.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The Ivy League will not have a 2020-21 basketball season or any other winter sports because of the spike in coronavirus cases. The decision was being communicated to coaches and athletes Thursday night.

The Ivies become the first NCAA Division I league to opt out of the basketball season, 13 days before the Division I campaign is permitted to start nationally.

Thursday night, the league released this statement: “Consistent with its commitment to safeguard the health and wellbeing of student-athletes, the greater campus community and general public, the Ivy League Council of Presidents has decided that league schools will not conduct intercollegiate athletics competition in winter sports during the 2020-21 season. In addition, the Ivy League will not conduct competition for fall sports during the upcoming spring semester. Lastly, intercollegiate athletics competition for spring sports is postponed through at least the end of February 2021.”

So no football or field hockey or the rest of the fall sports in the spring either, while spring sports remain up in the air.

In announcing this series of “unanimous decisions” by the Ivy presidents, the league statement said those decisions “follow extended consideration of options and strategies to mitigate the transmission of the COVID-19 virus, an analysis of current increasing rates of COVID-19 – locally, regionally and nationally – and the resulting need to continue the campus policies related to travel, group size and visitors to campus that safeguard the campus and community.”

Several weeks ago, Penn athletic director Grace Calhoun, asked about her degree of optimism or pessimism about having an Ivy League basketball season, had said, “The presidents have advised us from the early days of the pandemic — the virus will dictate what we are able to do.”

With several Ivy League campuses already considering not bringing all four classes back for the spring semester, the likelihood of having a full Ivy schedule had seemed remote, and there had been consideration of whether a six-team league schedule could work. But those were October discussions, before COVID-19 statistics kept worsening.

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"We have really tried to consider every possible thing that could happen and how we could still make it work,'' Calhoun said in late October.

The ramifications for Ivy fall and winter-sport athletes look to be massive, regardless of what class they are in, since the Ivy League does not allow athletes to complete their eligibility while in graduate school. If that rule isn’t changed, look for many more Ivy athletes in all sports to eventually transfer out of the league to complete their eligibility after graduating.

"Each guy has some decisions to make, in terms of next semester,'' said Penn men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue about his players. “They’re resilient. They’re all extremely disappointed. I’m heartbroken for them. But the whole world is dealing with this.”

"Winter and fall sport student-athletes will not lose a season of Ivy League or NCAA eligibility, whether or not they enroll,'' the league said in the statement. “Students who wish to pursue competition during a fifth year of undergraduate education at their home institution, if permitted, or as a graduate student elsewhere will need to work with their institutions in accordance with campus policy to determine their options beyond their current anticipated graduation date.”

The league said training and practices will be permitted “provided they are structured in accordance with each institution’s procedures and applicable state and local regulations. ...”

While the Ivy League is the first Division I league to make this call, it is fair to wonder if it will be the last. The Ivies were the first to cancel their conference basketball tournaments in March. Within days, the rest of Division I followed suit. Don’t expect that many dominoes to automatically fall this time, since many conferences already are playing football, although several games are being canceled every weekend because of pandemic issues, and early basketball games also being called into question.

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In a statement from Penn, Calhoun called the decision by the presidents “incredibly difficult” and not made lightly, “after careful consideration and analysis of the current trends of the COVID-19 virus and ongoing campus restrictions.” Calhoun said she was “especially heartbroken for the fall and winter student-athletes who will not be able to compete this academic year. ... We will monitor the status of the virus and allow as much activity as is safe and responsible to do so.”

Talking about various state regulations and campus policy variations that added layers of difficulty, Donahue said, “Honestly, I don’t think basketball as a whole is out of the woods yet.”