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By Lawrence Andrea June 2, 2020

Dane County reopening plan does not totally eliminate chances of UW Badger sports

If Your Time is short

  • Dane County’s phased reopening plan during the coronavirus pandemic puts restrictions on businesses and public gatherings. 

  • But it is unclear whether and to what degree the policy will impact sporting events at UW-Madison.

  • The university is working with Public Health Madison and Dane County, as well as the Big Ten Conference, to determine how best to resume athletics.  


When the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order in mid-May, some cities and counties issued their own orders. 

That included Madison and Dane County, which on May 18, 2020 detailed plans for a phased reopening of the county. For people looking forward to going shopping, for instance, it set limitations on store capacities. 

For those longing for University of Wisconsin sports, well, it raised a whole bunch of questions.

Scott Manley, vice president of government relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, focused on a tweet by a UW-Madison professor and added his own commentary:

"Underreported story of the new Dane County lockdown policy is that they’ve effectively killed Badger football, hockey, and basketball for 2020. No sporting events with more than 250 people until there is a vaccine (if there ever is one)," Manley tweeted. "Ridiculous overreach."

Does the county’s phased reopening plan really "effectively kill" the prospect of Badger sports in 2020?

Not entirely.

Forward Dane reopening plan

Manley’s tweet quotes a post from University of Wisconsin-Madison economics professor Noah Williams. Williams' tweet features a screenshot of a portion of the Madison/Dane County policy, along with the caption: "Unclear what would happen anyway, but can now forget about UW athletic events."

Williams, whose tweet started the exchange, pointed to a section of the plan that, in its least restrictive phase, limits outdoor mass gatherings to a maximum of 250 people and curbs indoor gatherings at 100 people, not including employees. 

When we asked Manley for backup, Nick Novak, a spokesperson for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, cited the same limitation. He said Manley’s tweet was alluding to the attendance at Badger sporting events, which he said under the order would be "essentially nothing" compared to normal.

For context, Camp Randall can hold 80,321 people for football games (season tickets regularly sell out), while the Kohl Center holds 17,287 for basketball and 15,237 for hockey.

Novak added that he doesn’t think UW-Madison is exempt from the county’s policy. He cited a section of an initial Public Health Madison and Dane County order that exempted higher education institutions "for purposes of facilitating distance learning, performing critical research or performing essential functions as determined by the institution."

"I would argue UW Athletics does not meet either criteria," Novak said in an email. 

When Manley posted his tweet, that order was in effect. It expired May 26, and the new order, which took effect that same day, does not include this language.

University bound by county guidelines?

A UW-Madison spokesperson was quoted by The Capital Times May 21, 2020 saying the university is not "expressly bound by" the county/city plan.

That, of course, would mean the university — and Big 10 conference — would play a more central role in determining the fate of the sports seasons. 

Featured Fact-check

In an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin, university spokesperson John Lucas said only that UW-Madison and the Big Ten Conference "continue to evaluate plans for a return to competition." He declined any additional comment.

A spokesperson from Public Health Madison and Dane County said the department will work with UW-Madison before any decisions about Badger sports seasons are finalized. 

Meanwhile, the NCAA Division 1 Council has said student-athletes in all sports will be permitted to participate in voluntary athletic activities beginning June 1, 2020. Earlier in May, the Big Ten extended its suspension of all organized team activities to the same date.

What does this mean?

The university athletic department is preparing for fall and winter sports seasons despite the county order. 

Badger football players are allowed back on campus beginning June 8 and will begin practicing shortly after, according to a June 1, 2020 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.

UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said on his monthly radio show that six weeks would be sufficient time to prepare football staff and players for their season opener against Indiana at Camp Randall on Sept. 4. He even said the team could get ready in three weeks, if necessary. 

In a series of videos posted May 26, 2020 to Twitter by NBC Milwaukee’s Lance Allan, Deputy Athletic Director Chris MacIntosh said that although it would be strange to play in front of a largely empty stadium, "the game of football can be done that way."

"We are doing everything we can to ensure that we have a season as it sits right now on our schedule," MacIntosh said in one clip. "We are doing everything we can to keep our student athletes safe, our coaches safe and our fans safe."

Manley’s tweet suggests it is solely up to public health officials to decide what happens with UW athletics. That is off the mark, in that there are other factors and institutions involved.

The tweet also assumes that there will be no change in official guidance before the start of the various seasons — in about two months for football, three for hockey and four for basketball.

The reality of the situation is more complex. 

To be sure, one could read Manley’s tweet as saying the season just won’t be the same. That is, with few fans in attendance, it would make the Jump Around tradition a bit less exciting.

But it would mean Badger football would still go on.

Our ruling

Manley tweeted that Dane County’s phased reopening plan "effectively killed Badger football, hockey, and basketball for 2020."

Although the plan does restrict large public gatherings for the foreseeable future, it is not clear that these guidelines will hinder UW-Madison’s ability to hold sporting events. What’s more, Manley puts the blame for the prospective loss of a season on the order, when other major factors are at work — namely the NCAA and Big Ten conference.

Our definition of Mostly False is "the statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression."

That fits here.

Our Sources

Scott Manley, vice president of Government Relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. Twitter May 19, 2020 

Noah Williams, professor of economics, UW-Madison, Twitter May 19, 2020 email  May 26, 2020

Forward Dane phased reopening plan, revised May 22, 2020

NCAA allowing allowing activities in all sports June 1, published May 22, 2020

Big 10 prohibiting organized team activities through June 1, published May 4, 2020

Email with Nick Novak, VP of Communications for WMC, May 27, 2020

Email with John Lucas, UW-Madison comms, May 27, 2020

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More by Lawrence Andrea

Dane County reopening plan does not totally eliminate chances of UW Badger sports

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