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Michigan State Athletic Director Bill Beekman talks potential of playing fall sports in spring

“I think it’s possible to be disappointed and still understand the logic of the decision that based on medical advice that the Big Ten received, that there were really just too many unknowns to proceed with the season.”

NCAA Football: Appalachian State at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

With the Big Ten’s decision to nix the entire fall sports season and start preparing for a possible football season in the spring, there are many questions looming. Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman spoke to the media today about several topics, via Zoom call.

Beekman made it clear that he understands both sides of the argument. While having to push the fall season was disappointing, and Beekman feels for the athletes and coaches, he understands and agrees with the the decision.

“It’s been a whirlwind of a couple of days — certainly some very challenging times since the Big Ten made the decision not to play fall sports,” Beekman said. “I want to express that I share the real disappointment of our coaches and student-athletes who have to at least wait a while and delay what they love to do, and in many cases, what they trained most of their lives to do. I think it’s possible to be disappointed and still understand the logic of the decision that based on medical advice that the Big Ten received from its infectious disease-working group, and its sports medicine-working group, that there were really just too many unknowns to proceed with the season. In that context, I think the presidents made a wise decision that we postpone play.”

Beekman went on to say that Spartan Athletics has two core principles. The first is to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of each and every student-athlete. The other core principle is that MSU operates as a student-first organization, and needs to keep the priorities of the students top of mind for every decision that is made. That played a big factor in the conversation, Beekman said.

He also went on to praise the university medical team for all of the work that’s been put into return to campus models, the return to play models and the hundreds of hours that those medical teams have poured in to at least get Michigan State in position to move forward with operations, even if the plans have now changed. Similarly, he praised the work the student-athletes for each fall sport have put in throughout the summer.

Beekman then said the decision to pull the plug on the fall season, was “heartbreaking,” but he has an optimistic outlook for the future.

“I’m very hopeful that what was true (last) spring is less true now and that we will be able to play our fall sports later in the academic year,” Beekman said. “As a group of Big Ten athletic directors, we modeled the current season schedule, and we’ll continue to work on creating opportunities for our student athletes to be able to play the sports they love at some point during this academic year — assuming that the process with this virus allows it.”

Beekman called not playing football this fall an “existential” moment for college athletics, and work is being done to try to find and develop solutions for the situation.

What’s next?

Of course, in college athletics, there are usually only two athletic programs that drive major revenue at large universities: football and men’s basketball. With football already in question, Beekman spoke about what could be next for basketball and winter sports.

“If we have the ability to play sports that generate revenue, we absolutely will,” Beekman said. “I am very hopeful we’ll play football in spring, that we’ll play basketball. I think, relative to basketball, there are open questions as to when the season will start, but I am hopeful and optimistic that we will find a path forward.

“As it relates to the other sports, there are some open questions as to how and when we’ll be able to play them from a health, safety and wellness perspective, and certainly there are financial implications of playing those sports. We haven’t made any final decisions. In some cases we’re in wait-and-see mode. We are encouraging our athletes that are here on campus to keep working out, and we think that’s in their best interest both from a physical and mental perspective. If it is at all possible we’ll get them on the courts, or ice or field at some point during this academic year.”

How did we get here?

Beekman was later asked about what changed in the week between the Big Ten-only schedule being released and the decision to cancel fall sports.

“The athletic directors spent many months working with the Big Ten and our consultants to develop that (conference-only) schedule,” Beekman said. “I think when you look at the schedule, for people that care passionately about these things, it’s a pretty elegant schedule. We did model and develop the schedule that in sort of an accordion fashion, we can push back the calendar, or play a maximum number of games at a later date where they canceled. So, great credit goes to the team that developed the schedule.

“The presidents and the chancellors throughout the course of the summer have been getting feedback from the medical team — two Big Ten teams of physicians, the sports medicine team and the infectious disease-working group,” Beekman added. “I don’t want to speak for presidents and the chancellors, and I wasn’t in the room when the decision was made, but I think as they continued to receive information it became clear to them that there were just too many unknowns. Too many unknowns that tipped in their minds the scales of balance, and it became too risky to play and better to postpone — not just for a week or two or three — but to postpone into the new calendar year at least for football.”

Other notes and quotes:

Is a bubble format viable for college athletics?

The next topic of conversation was about bubble formats, similar to what the NBA has done, and how that might work in college athletics. Beekman noted that, while there haven’t been many topics around the conversation as of yet, that is certainly something in consideration, at least for sports like basketball.

“We haven’t had significant, in-depth conversations about basketball at this point across the conference, at least not that I’ve participated in with the AD group,” Beekman said. “But, clearly, when you look at the major league sports, the NBA has taken the most significant steps in creating the bubble environment that they have, and it’s been successful. We know that works. Major League Baseball at the other end of the spectrum has had far less of that bubble-oriented environment, and they’ve had struggles. I think, certainly, basketball, with a much smaller number of people, lends itself more to that approach.”

“We are talking about student-athletes, not professional athletes, and it’s important to remember that they’re students first. With that said, with most of our universities fully engaging, or near fully-engaging in online classes or hybrid classes, I think the question of being off campus for a longer period of time becomes more feasible when the vast majority of classes are online. So I think in that format it may be possible to be a student and an athlete and not be on campus, and have all of that work and come together.”

How will the spring football season affect the fall 2021 season?

One of the biggest challenges and question marks for playing a spring football season is how will doing so alter the fall season? It would be irresponsible to force student-athletes to play a sport as physically taxing as football in back-to-back seasons, so how can this be done effectively and with the athletes’ well-being top of mind?

“The highest priority as we think about planning (a spring season), is making sure we can have a robust ‘21 season,” Beekman said. “My hope would be that we’re able to play a full 12 games in the 2021 season that looks and feels like the season last year — in terms of people in the stands, home games, away game, non-conference games and all of that. So I think when we think about having a normal ‘21 season, the question is what do we have to do to back into that being normal? How much time do we have to provide such that our students have a full opportunity to recover, to have time off, to let their bodies heal.

“So, I think that is a very real consideration, and that may push us to having a spring season that is a little shorter in nature than we might otherwise hope, maybe that runs a little earlier. All of those things are in play and we’re considering and trying to work through as we go. From my perspective, there are options that would allow for a spring season and a ‘21 season.”

Beekman praised the job Mel Tucker has done under unprecedented circumstances

When asked about head football coach Mel Tucker, Beekman gushed about the job Tucker has done managing everything with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting pretty much all normal procedures. Tucker was hired in mid-February, and roughly a month later, campus and spring ball was completely shut down, forcing remote operations.

“I think Mel has done an absolutely extraordinary job,” Beekman said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the work that he’s been able to accomplish, under what, by any definition, are the most challenging of circumstances. From how he’s worked with the players to help them learn the playbook using remote technology with all of them them at the time in their homes, to really everything allowable under NCAA rules. He’s done a great job with our donor base and with alumni around the country. Of course, he didn’t exactly sign up for this (pandemic). I can’t say enough about how under the most daunting of circumstances, he just picks up his lunch pail and goes to work and conquers the next task. That’s exactly the Spartan can-do, blue-collar roll up your sleeves attitude that we’re looking for.”

How much revenue will Michigan State lose?

“Our annual budget last year — a normal budget for where we are as a department — is about $140 million,” Beekman said. Of that, about $42 million is personnel costs — salaries, fringe benefits, retirements (etc.). Of the other $98 million, about $15 million is scholarships, which are sacrosanct. So you take 98 and you subtract 15 from it, and you get $83 million. So about one-third of our budget outside of scholarships is personnel costs, and almost exactly the other two-thirds is non-personnel items — equipment, rent, travel, facilities projects, whatever it might be. We’re looking very hard at our operational costs and reducing them as absolutely low as we possibly can. This isn’t a year to try to figure out how we shave 10 percent off of this, or five percent off of that, this is a year where we start with zero and try to spend as little as we possibly can. There’s nothing we’re going to immediately take of the table, but everything has to be an option as we explore how to close the gap as best as we possibly can.”

Was spring football already in the plans, or is it starting from the ground up?

“I would say the vast majority of our planning was for the fall, but there was time spent on the spring,” Beekman said. “In many cases the principles that we discussed in the fall are translatable in the spring. So when you think about the nuances of division games versus cross-division games in a reduced schedule, or if we’re going to play a conference-only schedule and we want to add a cross-division game, how do we sort that out? A lot of the logistical things we discussed relative to the fall translate to the same conversation in the spring. So, while they weren’t directly spring conversations, in a way they were. I think we don’t start from zero, we start fairly in the middle of the conversation. But I would say that our very specific spring conversations we’re fairly limited with an eye toward starting in the fall.”

What happens if other conferences carry out a fall schedule?

“I think the Big Ten Conference really is a special place,” Beekman said. “We share revenue very equitably in terms of television and bowl revenue, and you see very few issues that aren’t quickly resolved in near unanimity. We really didn’t spend a lot of time focusing on what other folks were doing. We spent a lot of time focusing on what we thought was the right decision at this time, and that’s what guides us. Other conferences may play. Their presidents and chancellors and medical staffs and ADs and head coaches landed a different place than we did, and that’s their prerogative. We, as a Big Ten Conference, made a decision that we thought was in the best interest of our student-athletes. There will be challenges that come with it.”

Michigan State is supportive of athletes wanting their voices heard

“Our student athletes are critically important and they’re why I’m here,” Beekman said. “The favorite part of my job is spending time with student-athletes and understanding their perspective. This past week I had my 25th anniversary as an employee at MSU. I love working at the university because, by definition, it involves constant interaction with young people. You learn and you grow and I value extraordinarily the perspective of our student-athletes. We have a monthly ‘Breakfast with Bill’ where we sit down and have some breakfast and talk about whatever’s on their mind. That helps drive the direction of the program and I tell them that. That communication is critically important. Even though we’re separated by this virus to a degree, I do stay in touch with many of our student-athletes. It’s important to hear them — I don’t know how you could run an athletics program any other way.”

Lastly, here’s something fun to think about — a potential crossover between the Pac-12 and Big Ten come spring (please ignore my typo in the tweet).