For about 40 days and 40 nights, the Big Ten Conference fasted from football.
Now, it plans to feast.
In a major about-face, the conference reversed its decision to cancel fall sports in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, reinstating the football season Wednesday for its 14 programs — including the Gophers’ — with other sports potentially to follow.
The Big Ten will begin an eight-week regular season Oct. 23-24, leading to a conference championship game Dec. 18 or 19, just before the four-team College Football Playoff field is set.
The schedule will include no byes, and everything hinges on the results of daily COVID-19 testing, which the players will begin Sept. 30. Anyone who tests positive must sit out for at least 21 days.
“This is all about our student-athletes, their families, our coaches, administration, the surrounding communities and our fans,” said Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren. “And the only focus and goal that we’ve had over the last 40 days was to safely allow our student-athletes to return to competition, so they can fulfill their dreams.”
Warren said updates on volleyball, women’s soccer and other fall sports could come Thursday. The conference will announce the new football schedule later this week, and the weekend of the Big Ten title game won’t just feature the East and West division winners. Every conference team will have a ninth game, each one facing the team that finished in the same place in the other division.
But those plans are contingent on the testing — which the Big Ten will pay for — and teams with positivity rates greater than 5% will have to halt practices and games for at least a week.
“If you look at the guidelines, I mean, what the Big Ten is doing, no other conference is doing the daily antigen testing,” Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle said on KFAN. “I would argue that we have done everything we can to make it as safe as possible for our kids to come back and compete.”
The Gophers in particular have a lot to gain from playing football this fall. They’re coming off an 11-2 season last year when they finished ranked in the Top 10.
The TV money will also help the Gophers’ athletic department, which stood to lose $75 million without fall sports and recently cut four sports programs partly because of that financial fallout. Though each Big Ten team will use its own home stadium, they won’t recoup any ticket sales, because no fans will be allowed.
The Big Ten arrived at this point after a dizzying spin through the decisionmaking roundabout.
On Aug. 5, the conference announced a revised 10-game, conference-only schedule. But the presidents and chancellors voted to cancel just six days later, postponing until spring 2021.
Warren said two days after that announcement that the conference’s medical advisers had raised serious concerns about the ability to appropriately contact trace and the effects of potential cardiac issues like myocarditis. That warranted a pause, he said. In an Aug. 19 open letter, Warren said the decision “would not be revisited.”
Yet some corners of the conference blasted the decision and lack of communication around it. Players, coaches, parents, legislatures, even President Donald Trump, mounted significant pushback, and a lawsuit from several Nebraska players revealed that the call had been made in an 11-3 vote from the presidents and chancellors.
The PAC-12 had followed the Big Ten and delayed, but the other Power Five conferences stayed the course. The ACC and Big 12 began playing last weekend, and the SEC is scheduled to start Sept. 26. The Big Ten had to look on, feeling increasing pressure to resume.
“One of the things about leadership, it’s important that you are in a perpetual process of gathering information, analyzing information, setting high standards,” Warren said. “And then also looking at each other to say that we now have met those standards for our student-athletes to participate.”
This time, the presidents and chancellors came to a unanimous decision when they voted again after a series of meetings and discussions with medical advisers that started this past weekend.
Northwestern President Morton Schapiro voted in August to cancel the season, saying the medical insight five weeks ago showed there was “virtually no chance” to safely play the season.
But that changed, along with Schapiro’s vote.
“For me, it wasn’t about political pressure. It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about lawsuits. It wasn’t about what everybody else is doing,” Schapiro said. “It was the unanimous opinion of our medical experts. … Even a week ago, I wasn’t convinced to be part of a unanimous decision to move forward. And for me, the turning point was a long conversation with our medical team.”
Why the change?
The development of daily testing with quick results was a game-changer. This allows the conference and its teams to be proactive instead of reactive.
“We’re trying to rapidly identify anyone that may have the virus and immediately remove them from their population,” said Dr. Jim Borchers, Ohio State’s team physician. “ … 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 percent.”
For Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, the new safety protocols seem to have answered lingering concerns.
“You kill two birds with one stone with that,” Fleck said on the Big Ten Network. “You’ve got the people who are really concerned over the health and the safety from day one, and then the people who just really wanted to play. And [the protocols] combine that in a very safe environment for all of our student-athletes.”
The ethical question, though, is still being debated. Schapiro at Northwestern, which isn’t allowing first- or second-year students on campus this semester, has to grapple with the optics of allowing football players to embark on a season complete with travel while restricting other students to online classes.
“The feeling was that if we can play football safely,” Schapiro said, “and there was a way the Big Ten was going to provide and meet the cost of daily testing, and we were able to do it, I don’t see any reason why you don’t want to go forward.”