Big Ten football’s return during coronavirus is sensible – and stupid
Sports Pulse: After a call with Big 10 commissioner President Trump is taking credit for their return
INDIANAPOLIS – You understand why the Big Ten is doing it, playing football after all, starting the weekend of Oct. 23-24. It’s because the SEC is playing. And the ACC and the Big 12. Because they’re playing football in the NFL. And at high schools.
Seriously, you get it.
We know more about the coronavirus today than we did on Aug. 11, when the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced they were postponing the 2020 college football season. COVID-19 testing has improved, getting cheaper, faster. Big Ten presidents believe they can minimize breakouts by performing rapid-result testing on every player and coach, every staffer, every day. They will be tested before practices and games, and if you test positive, you’re out for 21 days.
That’s the science, and you understand the science. But also you understand the optics:
In Ohio, the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns just opened their 2020 NFL schedule. High school football is well underway. But they can’t play at Ohio State?
Here in Indiana, same thing. The Indianapolis Colts just played their opener. High school football is rolling. It hasn’t been perfect, no, with dozens of canceled games around the state, but they have football at stadiums in Bloomington and Lafayette. So why can’t they have it at IU and Purdue?
Notre Dame, located in the heart of Big Ten country, just played its first game. The Irish were able to do that after a coronavirus outbreak on campus three weeks earlier. Notre Dame took its students out of the classroom, made them switch to virtual learning, and stared down the pandemic. Students were back in class last week.
In a resounding victory over the coronavirus, the Irish football team played on Saturday, right there in South Bend, in front of a crowd of nearly 10,000.
And on national television.
Oh, you understand why Big Ten presidents want to play football.
Even as the coronavirus ravages their campuses.
Chaos on campus
You don’t understand why Big Ten presidents are doing this. Not now. Not with the coronavirus surging at record levels across the Midwest, with most campuses in chaos.
At Michigan grad-student employees went on strike last week to protest what they call unsafe conditions.
At Northwestern freshmen and sophomores are being kept off campus, forced to learn remotely, for safety reasons.
At Maryland they paused all athletic training activities last week after 46 positive tests among athletes in a two-day period. Wisconsinfootball is paused right now.
At Nebraska, where president Ted Carter broke the news on a hot mic Tuesday night of the Big Ten’s return, university testing has revealed 637 positive cases out of 3,903 tests since Aug. 12, a positivity rate of an astounding 16.3%.
At Illinois they’re dealing with a massive outbreak that saw 784 positive tests over a recent 10-day period. University officials have asked students not to go out unless it’s for class or food.
At Wisconsin the COVID-19 crisis is so bad – almost 2,000 students have tested positive, with a positivity rate near 20% – students have placed makeshift gravestones on campus.
At Michigan State fraternities and sororities are quarantined through Sept. 28. At Purdue more than 30 student-housing units have been quarantined. At IU 33 of the 40 fraternity and sorority houses were quarantined last week, with three Greek houses posting a positivity rate of more than 75%
At least at most Big Ten schools, students know how dangerous their campus is. At Iowa, which has been a leader in the Big Ten’s return-to-football movement and where there has been more than 1,800 positive tests, students are upset that only people with symptoms can test for the virus. The CDC has said that as many as 40% of all coronavirus carriers are asymptomatic.
At Penn State a pandemic surge on campus reflects what is happening around Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Wolf ordered lockdown methods so severe, a federal judge ruled them unconstitutional. That was Monday.
On Tuesday, Big Ten presidents – including Penn State’s Eric Barron – voted unanimously to start playing football.
Heat was just too hot
You understand why the Big Ten caved.
The pressure was enormous. Parents of players wrote letters and held news conferences and flew to Chicago to stage a protest outside the Big Ten offices. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields started a #WeWantToPlay petition that drew more than 300,000 signatures. Eight Nebraska players sued the Big Ten. President Trump called commissioner Kevin Warren.
It was just too much for a league that had announced an 11-3 presidential vote to cancel fall football on Aug. 11, a position Warren reiterated Aug. 19 in a letter to the Big Ten community saying the decision “will not be revisited.”
But information changed. As Northwestern president Morton Schapiro was saying Wednesday: “The medical advice I relied on when I voted (against football) five weeks ago was there was virtually no chance we could do it safely. … For me, it was: ‘OK, we’re going to postpone the season and let’s hope we have (safety protocols) in place the first weekend of January.’
“Medical opinions changed,” Schapiro continued. “There have been a lot of advancements in understanding the pandemic. Like the great economist John Maynard Keynes said, ‘When the facts change, our minds change.’”
Sure. But like the great capitalist Jerry Maguire said, “Show me the money.”
That was a $1 billion consideration here, even if nobody will say so publicly. Schapiro – my MVP of the Big Ten’s six-person news conference that included Warren, athletic directors from Northwestern, Penn State and Wisconsin, and Ohio State team physician Dr. Jim Borchers – was the only person on the hour-long Zoom call willing to utter that dirty little five-letter word: money.
“For me it wasn’t about political pressure, wasn’t about money, wasn’t about a lawsuit, wasn’t about what everyone else is doing,” Schapiro said. “It was the unanimous opinion of our medical experts.
“You’ll have to speak to the other 13 (league presidents) about why they decided to move forward.”
Not sure it matters anymore. All that matters: Football is back for the Big Ten, and there will be much rejoicing. There are dangerous blind spots, gaps in logic and safety the size of the Ohio State offensive line, but nobody wants to hear that.
Do you want to hear that the Big Ten’s daily testing – the reason everyone says they’re comfortable playing football – won’t be mandatory until Sept. 30, but that teams will begin preparing immediately?
Do you want to hear about the report from two Ohio State physicians, including Borchers, showing four of 26 OSU athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 have shown signs of the potentially fatal heart condition myocarditis? And that the other OSU physician, Dr. Curt Daniels, is dismayed that people are focusing on the four positive tests and not the 22 negatives? As if a 15% myocarditis rate is acceptable?
No, you don’t want to hear the negatives. The kids can risk their health, what might amount to the flu today but massive complications down the road. Not your problem, right? If the virus spirals out of control on Big Ten campuses – sorry, if the virus keeps spiraling out of control on Big Ten campuses – that could lead to another community surge that shuts down schools and businesses around the Midwest.
But that’s tomorrow, and we’re Americans, and we can worry about that later. Today, give us football. Or give us death.