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Patriot League punts on fall football as SEC leaders meet

(AP Photo/John Munson)

By RALPH D. RUSSO

AP College Sports Writer

The Patriot League joined the Ivy League on Monday, punting on football and other fall sports because of the coronavirus pandemic while holding out hope the games can be made up.

The Patriot League said its 10 Division I schools will also not compete in men's and women's soccer, women's volleyball and field hockey. The conference's council of presidents said the league will consider playing those seasons in the winter and spring if possible.

"Really, really tough decision," Patriot League Commissioner Jennifer Heppel said. "Nobody's happy. Happy is a word that's kind of gone out the window."

The conference is mostly comprised of private schools located in the Northeast that offer limited athletic scholarships. Pennsylvania rivals Lehigh and Lafayette have played 155 times, more than any opponents in college football history.

Army and Navy are also Patriot League members, but not in football.

Heppel said news about the United States' inability to control the pandemic coming out of the July 4 weekend heightened concern within the Patriot League about its ability to safely conduct a sports season.

"That really spurred a lot of individual conversations of, 'What are you thinking? Where are you? How might we best begin to think about moving forward?" she said. "And that led into more collective conversations last week."

The Patriot League competes in Division I's second tier of college football (FCS) like the Ivy League, which announced a similar decision last week. Unlike the Ivy League, the Patriot League participates in the FCS playoffs.

"Of course you take note," Heppel said of the Ivy's decision. "When a decision that's made like the Ivy made that hadn't been made before, you want to understand because information is valuable."

Later Monday, the National Junior College Athletic Association announced it was not having a fall season and planned to move football and other sports to the spring.

Meanwhile, at the top of college sports, Southeastern Conference athletic directors met in person in Birmingham, Alabama, to discuss how the SEC can have a football season as COVID-19 cases spike throughout much of the South.

"It is clear that current circumstances related to COVID-19 must improve and we will continue to closely monitor developments around the virus on a daily basis," SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement after the meeting.

The meeting had been scheduled for a while but came just days after the Big Ten and Pac-12 said they would play conference-only schedules this fall in football and a number of other sports.

"We believe that late July will provide the best clarity for making the important decisions ahead of us," Sankey said.

SEC football media days, the unofficial start of the season for many fans, had been scheduled to begin this week, but the pandemic forced all FBS conferences to hold those events online this year. Even some of those - for the SEC and ACC - are now on hold.

Some programs are taking steps toward playing and even starting football seasons on time. Monday was the first day the NCAA allowed football players to take part in mandatory team activities with coaches, including unpadded walk-through practices.

Florida State posted a video on social media of its team hitting the field with players and coaches wearing face coverings and shields to help stop the spread of the virus.

Pac-12 football teams will have to wait. Last week, conference presidents delayed mandatory team activities for Pac-12 athletes, acknowledging the league would likely delay the start of the fall sports seasons.

Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard, in a letter to fans posted online, said the school is trying to balance the health and safety of athletes with the drastic financial repercussions of not having a football season.

"If we are unable to play sports this fall, the athletics department would incur approximately $40M in unfunded expenses in the next six months," Pollard wrote.

The college football season was scheduled to start with a handful of nonconference games - three involving Pac-12 teams - on Aug. 29, before a full slate around Labor Day weekend from Sept. 3-7.

The Patriot League has seven schools that play football: Bucknell, Colgate, Lehigh, Lafayette, Holy Cross and affiliate members Georgetown and Fordham. It doesn't have a multimillion-dollar revenue stream attached to its football season.

"The specific financial aspect of it didn't come into the conversations," Heppel said. "It wasn't a factor in our decision-making. And if that means it was easier, I don't know. Because it was still pretty damn hard."

What the Patriot League does have is one of college football's most storied rivalries.

Lehigh and Lafayette, located 17 miles apart in eastern Pennsylvania, started playing in 1884, sometimes as many as three times in a season. Only in 1896 was the rivalry not played since it began.

Army and Navy play in college football's highest tier of Division I and were exempt from the Patriot League's decision regarding other fall sports. The Patriot League council said the service academies will be allowed to pursue competition in those sports in which they usually compete within the conference, including soccer and volleyball, as the schools' leaders see fit.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at https://podcastone.com/AP-Top-25-College-Football-Podcast

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Updated July 13, 2020

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