5 reasons why the Big Ten reversed course on fall football season

Pete Thamel
·5 min read

With the news finally official about the Big Ten’s return, here are five reasons why the conference reversed course and came back.

Medical knowledge

The Big Ten’s messaging is centered around safer health protocols and better information than was available a month ago. When the Big Ten decided to re-message its initial decision eight days after postponing the season, commissioner Kevin Warren mentioned in a letter numerous medical reasons. In that Aug. 19 letter, he cited “transmission rates,” “contact tracing” and “limited” access to accurate, daily rapid testing. In regards to cardiomyopathy, the letter said that “the uncertain risk was unacceptable at this time.”

Nearly a month later, there are some clear answers. The Big Ten will have access to daily rapid testing. That’s essentially allowed the NFL to start the season without significant COVID-19 issues. And the medical presentation to a group of eight presidents/chancellors on Saturday and all 14 members of the COPC on Sunday addressed questions about heart issues like myocarditis that were being asked a month ago.

Outside pressure

No one in the Big Ten office will dare say this out loud, but the league felt myriad pressures to return. None of those pressures were bigger than the ACC and Big 12 starting their seasons and the SEC appearing poised to start its season on Sept. 26. The ACC even played in the Big Ten’s footprint on Saturday, with new ACC member Notre Dame hosting Duke in South Bend.

The visceral pressure of being left behind was felt throughout the league. Coaches worried about the long-term impact in recruiting. The lack of television money put tremendous pressure on athletic departments, who are still facing deep cuts even with the television revenue from playing.

There was fan outrage, parental picketing, irate players, lawsuits and political noise. But none of that would have been truly amplified without games being played, scheduled and happening from noon until midnight on Saturday. Seeing it done made it possible for it to be done in the Big Ten.

The Big Ten will play college football this fall. Here's what led to the reversal of its decision. (G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images)
The Big Ten will play college football this fall. Here's what led to the reversal of its decision. (G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images)

Ohio State/Penn State/Michigan

A league is only as good as its best members. And the biggest brands in the Big Ten had the loudest — and most meaningful — objections to the season being canceled. Ryan Day released a powerful statement summing up weeks of unrest from Ohio State: “Our players want to know: Why can’t they play?”

Penn State’s James Franklin and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh also publicly criticized the league. Franklin had a direct message in a radio interview, calling the communication “disappointing and often unclear.” Harbaugh took part in a march with his players, and his brother John Harbaugh, the Baltimore Ravens coach, even criticized the league.

This type of internal tumult rarely existed in the Big Ten’s history. And the public actions of the league’s top coaches and brands certainly made an impact. While Nebraska complained the loudest of the Big Ten schools, it was the push from the league’s wheelhouse programs — both the coaches and administrators — that prompted this reversal.

Leadership reversal

Warren has been on the job less than a year. And he’s made some high-profile mistakes. He alienated the other Power Five commissioners by not telling them of his conference-only plan earlier this summer.

The inability to preach a patient plan to his presidents, five of whom are nearly as new as Warren, ultimately put him in this situation. Having the foresight to pause or push back the start date when the Big Ten made the decision to postpone could have allowed the league to avoid its public flailing the past few weeks. Instead of patience, the Big Ten went first. And that clearly backfired.

Warren doubled down on the decision eight days later, as he said in the open letter that the Big Ten decision “will not be revisited.”

Not only was it revisited, it was reversed. For Warren, that’s the most significant news of his brief tenure. The past few weeks, he’s earned a reputation as the biggest liability among the Power Five commissioners as his inexperience in navigating the different layers of collegiate leadership was exposed. From the coach to the athletic department to the presidential level, Warren’s handling of the initial decision, including poor communication between the groups, was widely second-guessed throughout the league.

While Warren has a ways to go politically with league members, this decision dulls some of the unprecedented heat and criticism he was under from Big Ten coaches, administrators and members.

Full season, more cash

It’s remarkable that the Big Ten reversal comes just in time for the league to still participate in the full college football season. It’s widely believed around the league that the Big Ten will still be able to play both its lucrative conference title game and still be considered for the College Football Playoff.

This proved a huge motivator for those who helped will this reversal, as the elite teams — Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan — used this carrot as a way to keep many of the top players like OSU’s Justin Fields, Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth and Michigan’s Kwity Paye from declaring for the NFL draft. If the Big Ten had played in the spring, as it originally planned, it’s unlikely that those stars and many others would have played this season.

The preservation is also a financial boon for the Big Ten, which has programs looking at tens of millions in losses this season. (Ticket revenue is worth nearly $60 million at a school like Ohio State.) The Big Ten reportedly received $66 million in payouts from the College Football Playoff last year, which equates to more than $4.5 million per schools.

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