By Amy Tennery and Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - Two of the five wealthiest U.S. college sports conferences postponed the fall football season on Tuesday because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a critical blow to both an iconic American cultural tradition and a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 powerhouse members include perennial national football title contenders like the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and the University of Southern California. The Big Ten suspended fall sports, while the Pac-12 said it would not hold any sports competitions for the remainder of the year.
The move leaves the future of college football being played at all this fall in significant doubt as college officials grow ever more wary of their ability to have thousands of unpaid players practice and compete without jeopardizing their safety and contributing to the spread of a highly communicable disease.
"We know that this is a difficult day for our student-athletes, and our hearts go out to them and their families,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement. "We have made clear that all of their scholarships will be guaranteed."
The conference said it was also calling on the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body for college sports, to extend an additional year of eligibility for student-athletes.
"The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward," Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said, adding that there is "too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks" to move forward with the fall sports season.
Pac-12 said it "would consider a return to competition for impacted sports" after the New Year, while the Big Ten will weigh "the possibility of competition in the spring," for fall athletic programs.
Earlier this year a study conducted for ESPN by Washington University, in St. Louis, said the 65 schools that make up the "Power Five" conferences would collectively lose more than $4 billion in football revenue, with at least $1.2 billion of that due to lost ticket revenue.
The University of Nebraska, a Big Ten school, said it was "very disappointed" by the conference's decision.
"We continue to strongly believe the absolute safest place for our student athletes is within the rigorous safety protocols, testing procedures, and the structure and support provided by Husker Athletics," school officials said in a written statement.
"Our student-athletes and coaches want to compete," said University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh. "We have shown over the weeks since returning to campus that we could meet the challenge and provide our student-athletes the opportunity of a fall football season."
Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith said that while disappointed, "we certainly understand that this was the time that we had to pull the plug."
University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Oregon, both members of the Pac-12, said they supported the decision.
"While the decision was difficult, it is consistent with our shared commitment to the health and well-being of Cal's student-athletes, coaches and staff," said Cal Chancellor Carol Christ. "Our hearts go out to the student-athletes."
The postponements were likely to complicate the professional football landscape, with the annual NFL Scouting Combine and draft regularly held in the spring.
U.S. President Donald Trump advocated for college football to be played this year and suggested that student athletes are strong enough to withstand the novel coronavirus.
"We want to get football in colleges. These are young, strong people. They won't have a big problem with the China virus. So we want to see college football start," Trump said during a news conference at the White House.
While a number of professional athletes have recovered from COVID-19, there are concerns among sports medical professionals that young, healthy people can get sick and have lingering health problems, such as heart, lung and cognitive issues.
The University of Massachusetts, which plays as an independent, canceled its 2020 football season on Tuesday, citing COVID-19. But it left open the possibility of competition later in the academic calendar. [nL1N2FD15E]
The Ivy League said last month that intercollegiate sports would not resume in the fall semester, and the University of Connecticut last week canceled "all competition for the 2020-21 school year" for its football program.
The Atlantic Coast Conference said that it would "continue to make decisions based on medical advice, inclusive of our Medical Advisory Group, local and state health guidelines."
Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey said he looked forward "to learning more about the factors that led the Big Ten and Pac-12 leadership to take these actions today."
"We will continue to further refine our policies and protocols for a safe return to sports," he said.
(Reporting by Amy Tennery and Frank Pingue; additional reporting by Dan Burns; Editing by Chris Reese, Alistair Bell, Dan Grebler and Sonya Hepinstall)