The Big Ten will be armed with opportunity to learn from mistakes of other conferences — but it might not be easy

Shannon Ryan, Chicago Tribune
·7 min read

The college football season didn’t sprint out of the starting blocks without stumbles.

Before the first weekend, games were postponed because of COVID-19 cases across the nation. More than 30 college football games have been canceled or postponed.

The Big Ten has plenty of faulty blueprints from which to learn when its delayed season kicks off Friday night as the Illinois Fighting Illini face the Wisconsin Badgers. There’s no wiggle room for teams in this nine-game, no-break, conference-only season experiment.

“Those things looking into the future are hard to tell,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said about the likelihood of the Big Ten completing a season intact. “I’m hoping we start with Week 1 first.”

The conference had predicted outbreaks and pitfalls when it initially announced in August it was postponing the season for safety reasons as most other Power Five conferences plowed ahead. The Big Ten reversed course less than 40 days later.

Now, they’ll join this societal experiment, trying to create normalcy amid a pandemic as cases surge in almost every state in the nation. In fact, the rate of COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin has been above 20% this week.

“We concentrate on the things we can control,” Smith said. “We’re not going to be there in all of those places (throughout Wisconsin). For us to be able to play the game Friday night, we’re going to have a clean field. Both programs will be that way. We’re not worried about a lot of those things. We’ve been tested every day. They’ve been tested every day. The football teams have been in a form of a bubble a little bit.”

But the question persists: Will it be enough?

The Big Ten has justified its return with its protocols that are stricter than other leagues, notably its daily antigen testing and follow-up PCR tests. The conference requires positive players and coaches to sit out 14 days, with players showing signs of myocarditis heart issues sitting out 21 days and using data from both population positivity rates and team daily reported positivity rate to determine whether a team can play.

Yet experts agree there’s no guarantee.

“I think it’s been an incredible effort by people at every institution to look at every angle,” said Dr. Jim Borchers, Ohio State team physician and Big Ten co-chair of the medical subcommittee. “They’ve been doing this since June. They’re doing everything they can do to make the environment as safe as they can, to mitigate risk as much as possible. It’s not a zero sum risk. We’ve been transparent about that. I’m sure there’s anxiety this week to make sure teams get there. My guess is there will be somewhat sense of relief when football get kicks off this weekend.”

Players will be spaced out from the 15-yard line to the 15-yard line. Meals will be grab-and-go style — something Notre Dame said it learned too late after an outbreak — rather than pregame bonding experiences.

Ohio State said it will fly to most games and is considering — for cost and safety — bussing to Michigan State and flying home.

No fans are permitted at Big Ten games to contain community spread. But Illinois will host a watch party in the stadium for students, including an event of participating in the Block I tradition.

Students whose required health and safety app shows a positive or inconclusive test will be denied entry. Those who haven’t logged on in the previous four days won’t be allowed to attend either.

The university has been hosting stadium events, requiring social distancing and masks, for five weeks. Students may bring in food and non-alcoholic drinks, but will be sitting in groups of 10 or fewer with 15 feet between groups.

Like other activities, it is hopeful to bring students together socially in a safe way.

With rising cases in the county, specifically on Michigan’s campus, public health authorities issued an emergency stay-at-home order for students except to get food, attend an essential job, attend class or … play football.

The Wolverines game will continue as scheduled Saturday at Minnesota and they’ll host Michigan State on Oct. 31.

These messages can be confusing to the public, said Dr. Brian Castrucci, an epidemiologist and president of the de Beaumont Foundation, an organization promoting community health.

“College football has been wrapped into this war on public health,” he said.

Mask wearing hasn’t been done consistently by coaches during games across many leagues.

Many coaches beat the drum loudest demanding the Big Ten to begin the season after postponing.

Florida coach Dan Mullen, in the SEC, said he wanted to have 90,000 fans in “the Swamp” before the team suspended football activities when 19 players tested positive and then later Mullen tested positive.

“It’s the same way I don’t want to see Jim Harbaugh smoking in a press conference … or see Ryan Day day popping a beer on the sideline,” Castrucci said.

Plus, a team traveling raises risk of infection, despite testing that can cut down on spreading.

“There’s potential for infection when you can’t control your bubble,” he added, “and so far we’ve been rolling the dice. We are forming a rhetoric, we are forming a narrative to allow us to do the things we want to do. You don’t get to run into a burning building because you’re sick of the flames. This is why every state but two are trending in the wrong direction.”

Castrucci said he expects the Big Ten to eventually welcome fans like some NFL teams and many college conferences, but suggested it wouldn’t be wise.

“We all start off with the best of intentions,” he said. “It’s like a diet. Remember the first day of the diet, you have no sugar. By that fourth day, you sneak in a cookie or two.”

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said the rules on attendance would be evaluated weekly, but the Big Ten had agreed for teams to act uniformly to avoid an unfair home field advantage for some teams with less stringent government restrictions on attendance.

Many in the Big Ten said players have shown exemplary commitment to practicing safety rules in order to play, despite outbreaks in the offseason on teams like Rutgers, Michigan State and Nebraska.

“Hopefully supporters of institutions will become in sync with what these teams have been committed to and support them appropriately to make sure they’re not at risk,” Borchers said. “(Fans should) watch at home, stay physically distanced and they’ll contribute to the success of (teams).”

Smith said he was grateful to have a season beginning, but expressed a mix of optimism and realism when asked about getting every game in during a truncated nine-game Big Ten season.

“In order for us to play, we have to make some sacrifices to get it done,” he said. “I think we can get it done. But you look at society. Society isn’t getting it done. We as adults can’t convince adults, older people to put on a mask. ‘It’s infringing on my rights,’ and all of that.

“It seems like it’s a small thing we’re asking people to do in order to get that done, to play football and other things. Our young people have done what we’ve asked them to do. I’m hoping the Big Ten can get (a season) in. First, I’m hoping Illinois and Wisconsin can get theirs in.”

After that? We’ll see.

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