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U.N.C. Moved Classes Online. The Football Games Are Still On, for Now.

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U.N.C. Moved Classes Online. The Football Games Are Still On, for Now.

The University of North Carolina is a test case for whether the country will tolerate sports at colleges where administrators believe it’s too dangerous to go to class.The University of North Carolina has not changed its plans to play football even though the university told students that all undergraduate classes would be held online.Credit…Patrick Mcdermott/Getty…

U.N.C. Moved Classes Online. The Football Games Are Still On, for Now.

The University of North Carolina is a test case for whether the country will tolerate sports at colleges where administrators believe it’s too dangerous to go to class.

Credit…Patrick Mcdermott/Getty Images

Alan Blinder

The University of North Carolina told many of its undergraduate students this week that they could go home and log on for classes. It had a different message for athletes: You can study online, stay on campus and you just might be able to play this fall, too.

The coronavirus pandemic is turning one of America’s most prestigious public universities into something of a political laboratory for college athletics, testing whether the country will tolerate the notion that the fall semester can simultaneously be safe enough for sports but too dangerous for in-person classes.

And beyond the immediate matter of whether sports like football should be played this autumn, this week’s approach by North Carolina could ultimately factor into national debates over players’ rights and whether the hyphen in “student-athlete” might be more properly replaced with “or.”

“The optics aren’t very good, if you take the principle that all college athletes are students first,” said Walter Harrison, a former president of the University of Hartford who once was chairman of the committee that evolved into the N.C.A.A.’s top governing body.

“If you are a critic of college athletics to begin with, this is going to add fuel to your fire,” said Harrison, a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which presses sports programs to follow universities’ educational goals.

The plan by North Carolina, announced on Monday after a surge in cases that came with the influx of students to Chapel Hill, moved all undergraduate courses online beginning on Wednesday. U.N.C.’s athletic department issued a separate statement that made its hopes plain: “We still are expecting to play this fall.”

They certainly might: The Tar Heels, a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, remain formally on course to open the football season on Sept. 12, with a home game against Syracuse. But the unsettling statistics from the university on Monday — 526 students in isolation or quarantine, and nearly 14 percent of its virus tests coming back positive, up from about 3 percent a week earlier — amounted to a pointed reminder that the Atlantic Coast, the Big 12 and the Southeastern conferences will face epidemiological headwinds in their loosely entwined quests to start football next month.

The Pac-12 and the Big Ten, college football’s other marquee conferences, last week abandoned plans to play in the fall and said they would consider playing in the spring semester at the earliest. Notre Dame, which is ordinarily an independent in football but is planning to play in the A.C.C. this fall, said on Tuesday that it would move classes online for two weeks because of “a steady increase in positive rates among students” since classes started on Aug. 10. The university said athletic teams were unaffected.

With standards that are proving opaque, unfixed or unenforceable, the fate of fall sports is hardly guaranteed as campuses bubble to life again. The N.C.A.A. president, Mark Emmert, who is prominent but largely powerless over big-time college football, said in May that “if a school doesn’t open, then they’re not going to be playing sports” — a suggestion whose importance has varied among administrators as the pandemic has evolved.

The disjointed governance system, particularly with football, has left space for North Carolina and dozens of other universities to set their own plans with limited interference.

In an interview on Tuesday, Bubba Cunningham, North Carolina’s athletic director, said that despite some outside skepticism of their strategy, university officials believed student-athletes were not at greater risk of contracting the virus because of their participation in sports.

“The spread doesn’t come from the supervised activity,” said Cunningham, who said U.N.C. officials now expected residence halls to be at about 20 percent capacity for the semester, including athletes, international students and people with unreliable internet service. “The spread comes from weekends and evenings. Practices, classes, that’s not where the risky behavior occurs.”

Athletes, he noted, were tested routinely, and he said he believed players would be more likely to follow public health recommendations than typical students.

“They understand that if they don’t comply, they won’t be able to compete,” he said.

Still, some athletes publicly suggested they had concerns about the university’s plan.

“So what’s the difference in student athletes and regular students? Are we immune to this virus because we play a sport?” Garrison Brooks, a forward on the men’s basketball team, asked on Twitter late Monday.

“The almighty dollar,” Brooks, who plans to play this season, added in a subsequent tweet less than a minute later.

Like other members of top conferences, North Carolina has a litany of worries over canceling sports. Many players want to compete this fall, and some believe they are safer within the shepherded confines of a college athletic program than they would be in their hometowns. There are anxieties over lost experiences, compromised seasons and, for some of the most talented athletes, shakier postcollege prospects.

There are also financial concerns. North Carolina, which planned an athletic budget of about $110 million before the onset of the pandemic, has warned that it could lose up to $52 million in the months ahead, especially if its celebrated men’s basketball program misses all or part of the coming season. (The N.C.A.A. said this week that it expected to announce tentative plans for basketball next month, though it said that would be “just the first milestone for many important decisions pertaining to the regular season and the N.C.A.A. basketball championships.”)

Cunningham said, though, that he had told the university’s chancellor and provost months ago to call off sports for the year if they believed that athletics would interfere too greatly with academics. He was rebuffed, he said, but emphasized that U.N.C. officials could change their plans if the views of their medical advisers became more dire.

“If their medical opinion changes in the next day, week or month, then obviously what we do will change, as well,” he said.

Whether or not its plans endure over the coming weeks, observers said U.N.C.’s decision could someday prove a cudgel in the broader fight over players and their relationships with the universities that give them little more than scholarships to play. That debate has reached the corridors of Congress and will be bickered over until at least January, when the N.C.A.A. is expected to rewrite its rules to allow students to profit, at least a little bit, from their fame.

Even though U.N.C. had planned a semester that would be far different than usual, even without this week’s changes, some advocates for change in college sports said Tuesday that they were stunned that a top university would so openly champion athletics as much of the rest of the campus sputtered.

“This is why I say higher education has lost its mind,” said Donna A. Lopiano, the director of women’s athletics at Texas for nearly two decades and now the president of the Drake Group, a nonprofit that urges changes in college sports.

“It’s incongruent, and it doesn’t make sense,” she said.

Many universities were publicly unbothered, suggesting that one school’s health troubles would carry only so much weight with far-flung leagues. The A.C.C. this week referred to a statement it issued last week, when it said it would “continue to follow our process that has been in place for months” and that it was “prepared to adjust” as warranted.

And Cunningham, who sent a group text to athletic directors on Monday, asserted that in private, officials at other A.C.C. schools were not expressing severe misgivings about the situation in Chapel Hill.

When one athletic director called on Tuesday, he said, the subject did not even surface.

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