The soap opera is over. Finally. The on, then maybe off, then definitely off, then irrevocably off, then hopefully on, then probably on Big Ten football season is now officially on again.
The presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten Conference decided unanimously on Tuesday to reverse their decision of August 11 cancelling the football season and to permit league schools to play an abbreviated in-conference schedule that will still allow its champion to be eligible for the college football playoff in late December and early January.
The league that followed the science out of football in August has followed it back in again this past week. The previous decision to cancel was undertaken because the medical uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus presented too many health risks for conference officials. Big Ten teams suffered COVID-19 outbreaks during the summer, and without a rapid-testing process, contact tracing was difficult. However, since that time reliable rapid-testing procedures have surfaced, reducing concern about contact tracing. Also, dangers of myocarditis have been mitigated by the availability of thorough cardiac screening for players who test positive for the virus. Both of these developments paved the way for conference presidents to green-light football on Tuesday.
Said Dr. Jim Borchers of Ohio State, co-chair of the medical subcommittee of the conference’s return-to-competition task force, “We know that if we can test daily with rapid testing in these small populations of teams, we’re very likely to reduce infectiousness inside practice and game competitions to near 100%.… We feel very confident that with that approach, we’ll be able to make our practice and competition environments as risk-free as we possibly can.”
There is no reason to doubt the importance of science to the league presidents’ decision. But you can’t help but think the degree and energy of pushback from players, parents, coaches, and fans over the month following the decision to cancel caught league power players by surprise and impelled them to revisit their decision.
Nearly every day for a month a new bombshell was tossed onto the doorstep of conference headquarters in Chicago: Nebraska said it would explore options of playing games outside the conference; coaches and players from Ohio State went public with criticism of the decision; parents of players wrote letters of protest; the league’s best player got over 300,000 signatures on a public petition urging the league to change its mind; player parents showed up at conference HQ to protest; eight Nebraska players sued the conference; President Trump called Commissioner Kevin Warren trying to facilitate reopening; Jim Harbaugh, the Michigan coach, marched for football with fans on campus; Ryan Day, coach of mighty Ohio State, criticized the league’s communication process and professed hope for playing this fall; pols from six states sent a letter asking for reconsideration; and finally, the state of Nebraska got involved, sending an unfriendly letter to the conference inquiring about its nonprofit status in the state. All of this highly emotional, highly publicized, lighting up the media, social and otherwise.
Needless to say, the Big Ten, that most august of athletic conferences, a league accustomed to decisions being unanimously passed and then complacently accepted, was not expecting that. It’s just the sort of reaction that makes an irrevocable decision become eminently revocable.
Which is what league officials announced on Wednesday. Football will commence in all league schools on the weekend of October 23–24. The league has adopted an unusual schedule called the 8 + 1. Each team will play eight games, all in conference, plus one. The “one” will occur on December 19, when the champion from the East Division will play the champion from the West Division, the second-place team from the East will play the second-place team from the West, third place versus third place, etc., all the way down to seventh place against seventh place. December 19 is a key date, because on December 20 selections will be made for the college football playoffs, the four-team tournament that determines the national champion.
Teams will also be following comprehensive medical guidelines and protocols. All players, coaches, trainers, and other on-field personnel will be required to undergo daily antigen testing, the results of which will be closely monitored by the conference. Players testing positive must sit out for 21 days. Teams that exceed a “team positive rate” of 5 percent (that is, the number of positive tests divided by the total number of tests administered) or a “population positive rate” of 7.5 percent (that is, number of positives divided by total at-risk population) are sidelined as well. All that, with no wiggle room in the schedule — no bye weeks.
Plus, disappointingly, as of now, no general fans will be allowed in Big Ten stadiums. This is a blow to fans, certainly, but it also hits hard many Big Ten cities, which entertain an invasion of the faithful on football Saturdays, filling their hotels and restaurants and bars, and patronizing their shopping districts. Many of these businesses depend on football Saturdays for their survival.
This decision has already generated rebuke from Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who said,
The Big Ten followed the science for players, they should follow the science for fans. Local communities should make decisions about attendance based on public health conditions on the ground. This is a fluid situation and what works in Lincoln might not be right for Ann Arbor, and it might vary month to month. The Big Ten should embrace local, data-based decisions.
The decision to reinstall football — if it sticks, considering the unpredictability of the virus and the medical hoops teams must jump through — mitigates damage from the initial cancellation decision. It saves the Big Ten face among the other major athletic conferences and tells high school players around the country that the conference does care about football. It will save member schools millions of dollars, will allow member schools to compete more ably on the recruiting trail, and will save everybody in the conference the embarrassment of sitting home when other leagues are actually in stadiums playing football on national television.
But even more, it shows American spunk. The way the Big Ten approached this in August was disheartening. Instead of finding a way, the conference took the expeditious way out. Officials would not even hold off on a decision for a few weeks to see if conditions down the road were more amenable for playing football. Instead of finding reasons to play football, conference schools looked for reasons not to play football. The decision to play after all is much more in tune with the American spirit.