The Big Ten’s chief decisionmakers are considering an about-face on football by voting to start the season in mid-October, with an announcement expected this week. Some reports indicate a high level of optimism that the original decision to postpone will get overturned.
A vote would bring clarity, the most elusive element in this conversation. The Big Ten’s handling of this matter throughout has been a case study in poor leadership and bungled messaging, so any scenario remains possible.
But let’s say the league gives a green light to play. Does that mean Commissioner Kevin Warren and 14 university presidents and chancellors were swayed by new medical and testing information, or will they have caved under an avalanche of outrage?
Some of both.
New advances in rapid testing and the sight of college football being played around the country converged to push the league’s leadership to consider reversing its own August decision to postpone all fall sports. Don’t be fooled by spin tactics designed to avoid admitting the conference acted too swiftly in its original vote.
First things first. Optimism for an October start is wonderful news. I’m thrilled for players, coaches, fans, athletic departments and anyone who loves college football, if the conference indeed pushes forward.
A fall season isn’t guaranteed to work. Games might get postponed because of outbreaks within locker rooms. The season might not be able to finish. But at least the Big Ten would be willing to give it a shot.
The availability of rapid antigen tests changes the conversation drastically because athletes will be able to get tested frequently with immediate results, which would help prevent spreading and aid contact tracing. More medical assurances undoubtedly carries weight with the Big Ten’s leadership.
But so do optics. Watching other conferences start their seasons the past two weekends only reinforced the argument and anger of those who vehemently opposed the Big Ten’s decision to postpone.
Does anybody think for a second that Warren and university presidents saw college football being played elsewhere and didn’t think, Why them and not us? Were we wrong? This will look really bad if other Power Five conferences pull this off and we didn’t try.
Of course they thought that.
Warren issued an open letter in the face of intense criticism Aug. 19 outlining the league’s stance for postponing the season, noting the decision “will not be revisited.”
In fact, the league revisited it almost immediately.
While hoping the Big Ten would at least try to play, I supported the decision to postpone based on listening to their reasoning that too much uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and the heart condition myocarditis gives them pause. Without knowing what facts the league’s medical team delivered in daily updates, a pause made sense to gain more clarity, and frankly more time to see if things improved.
That’s where Warren and the league erred. They had time. Why not announce that the season would be delayed until further notice? Why not demonstrate patience in letting the situation play out, as the SEC, ACC and smaller conferences chose to do?
The Big Ten made a decision before it needed to, failed miserably in articulating why and then faced what feels like a mutiny.
In one of the oddest missteps, the Big Ten couldn’t even agree on whether there was an official vote the first time. It took a lawsuit filed by Nebraska players for the league to acknowledge in sworn affidavits that leaders voted 11-3 to postpone.
Pressure to reverse the decision — or least provide more insight — has come from many angles. Players took to social media to voice their displeasure. Coaches ripped the league publicly. Parents of players protested. Even President Trump got involved by calling Warren to discuss the matter. Just last week legislators from six states — including two from Minnesota — sent Warren a letter asking the league to overturn its decision. The Nebraska attorney general also sent Warren a letter essentially demanding transparency.
It’s naive to think that degree of pushback had no effect on the Big Ten’s willingness to revisit its decision. An announcement should come soon. There won’t be any confusion over whether they voted this time.