MISSOULA — While fall football has been dumped by the Big Sky Conference, the remote possibility remains that volleyball, soccer and cross country will survive the dreaded 2020 coronavirus pandemic.
That possibility took a hit Monday when Eastern Washington announced it was suspending all fall sports until further notice. It wasn't a death knell for the Big Sky since Eastern officials have been outspoken about their intentions for a while, but it certainly wasn't a ray of hope for Grizzly fans excited about watching fall sports.
"Muddy as ever," Montana athletic director Kent Haslam said in summing up the situation.
Montana's plan as of Tuesday night was to try to piece together a fall schedule for volleyball, soccer and cross country. But fall sports will be a big topic of discussion when the Big Sky Presidents Council meets Wednesday and the council will likely make a major decision.
At this point, it doesn't look good for Big Sky fall sports. The Pac-12 on Tuesday decided to dump all sport competitions through the end of the calendar year.
"It's top of mind, no doubt," said Haslam.
Like football, 50 percent is the magic number for all other fall sports. If enough schools cancel volleyball, soccer and cross country, the NCAA championships will be canceled as well. If the championships go away, it changes completely what Big Sky schools want to do.
One advantage volleyball, cross country and soccer have over football is squad size. It's easier for Big Sky schools to comply with NCAA-mandated COVID-19 testing when it's not 100-plus players and staff like football.
But the safe move, from a liability standpoint, is for Big Sky schools to dump volleyball, soccer and cross country. And that would hurt for many reasons, some of which are not so obvious. For example, Northern Arizona is a national power in cross country, so canceling the cross country season would hurt the visibility of the league.
Regardless of which side of the fence you're on, there's no arguing the issue is complicated. Athletic directors and university presidents are making decisions they've never made before and the information changes every day.
"It goes to show how different the virus is managed based on state, based on county," Haslam said of Eastern Washington's decision to dump all fall sports.
"I mean, here we are, we're probably as close to Cheney, Washington, as we are to Bozeman. But Cheney is impacted by it very differently than Bozeman is being impacted by it. It's county health. It's campuses. It's an interesting time, that's for sure."