But they are also imperiling what remains of their public standing with the wager that they will be able to protect the students who play for them. Before some of their teams have played a single down this season, the leagues have been accused by critics of prioritizing money and power over health and safety.
“These athletes are commodities and they’re assets and they’re not making any money staying at home and staying healthy.,” said B. David Ridpath, a former president of The Drake Group, which seeks reforms in college athletics. “To sit there and say, ‘We pulled it off and persevered,’ is, to me, just P.R. hogwash. It’s a business, and the financial house of cards kind of fell.”
The Big Ten’s reversal last week was most often linked to medical advancements, but it came with the conference facing political pressure, litigation and outrage so pervasive that top coaches were openly questioning the league. The Pac-12 confronted far less outrage after its announcement on Aug. 11, the same day the Big Ten postponed its season, that it would not play this fall.
At the time, the league detailed its medical advisers’ thinking, warning that “community prevalence remains very high in much of the Pac-12 footprint” and declaring that there needed to be greater testing capacity. It stifled any internal dissent, but the league’s caution was helped along by public officials who imposed restrictions on gatherings, effectively forcing cancellations of practices.
Last week, though, not long after the league became the first Power 5 conference to strike a deal for daily testing, the atmosphere around the conference began to shift rapidly. Players lobbied Gov. Gavin Newsom of California to ease restrictions, and he and Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon agreed that the state governments would not impede the Pac-12. The local authorities also widely agreed to pave the way for athletics.
Still, the hours before the meeting of Pac-12 leaders showed how turbulent the path to — and through — a season might be: Officials in Boulder County, Colo., home of the Colorado Buffaloes, restricted gatherings of people who are between the ages of 18 and 22 and specifically said that people in that age range could not participate in practices for intercollegiate sports teams.
But the league has been under mounting pressure, particularly since it became the lone Power 5 conference poised not to play this autumn.