There remains plenty of details to finalize, but Big Ten football will attempt a comeback this fall.
Improved medical protocols are agreed upon. Practices can begin in full immediately. Daily testing for players is expected to begin no later than Sept. 30 across all campuses. The weekend of Oct. 24 is the target for kickoff. Details of an eight-game regular season schedule, which will culminate in a ninth game against an equally seeded cross-divisional opponent, remain under construction.
But after more than a month of political wrangling, coach chirping, parent protests, player lawsuits, fan frustration and public outcry, the conference finally acquiesced and gave a green light to a football season this fall. All coming 36 days after league leaders determined it too uncertain to proceed and planning to push competition into 2021.
“I think the biggest thing is that we all have to realize that this is a fluid situation. And we always wanted to make sure that we put the health and safety of our student-athletes at the forefront of all our decisions,” conference commissioner Kevin Warren said on a video conference call with reporters. “And this is also a situation that we need to adapt. … And based upon the standards that were set by our chancellors and presidents from Day 1 is that we needed to make sure that we create an environment that would allow for our student athletes to participate in intercollegiate athletics in a healthy and safe environment.
“And the standards that we needed, we had to go to work. We had to be fluid, we needed to show flexibility. And once we reached that point and that we felt that we were comfortable to proceed forward and to be able to create that that environment, we were able to go forward.”
But that still does not mean it will be smooth sailing from here.
What changed their minds?
In a release about the Big Ten’s decision, Rutgers said it “will abide” by the Big Ten’s revamped protocols and daily testing. However, the school in New Jersey also made it clear — as Warren did back in early August — that nothing is guaranteed.
“Assessments of the conditions at Rutgers, as well as those for each opponent, will be made regarding all upcoming games,” Rutgers’ release stated. “Individual universities may suspend the return to competition on a week-to-week basis if they or their scheduled opponents are experiencing significant negative changes among players and staff or within the broader university community.”
League leaders have gone from their initial terminology of calling the Aug. 11 decision a “postponement” in its initial release to now terming it “a pause.” So what changed among presidents and chancellors a month after they voted 11-3 against playing — with Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa the outliers — to rendering a unanimous verdict?
“Each of the 14 of us might have a different answer among the presidents and chancellors,” said Northwestern president Morton Schapiro, who chairs the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors and the league’s Return To Competition Task Force. “For me, it wasn't about political pressure, it wasn't about money, it wasn't about lawsuits, and it wasn't about what everybody else is doing. It was the unanimous opinion of our medical experts. And that sort of evolved over the course of weeks.
“Even a week ago, I wasn't convinced to part of unanimous decision to move forward. … When the medical team was divided, as they were five weeks ago, some people were convinced — I wasn't, as you know, from the vote. But then it turned around over the course of the past week, I would say. And then once we got the testing agreed and arrangements pretty much set and figured out how to do it safely, then that's how we move forward.”
Both Michigan president Mark Schlissel and Michigan State president Samuel Stanley, who initially voted to postpone the season, reversed their decisions. Schlissel's original vote contradicted Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh, who pushed to have a season and marched with his players and their parents Sept. 5 in protest of the postponement.
"Great news today. Over the past month, I could sense the anticipation from our players and coaches, and I’m thrilled on their behalf that they will have a chance to play a 2020 season," Harbaugh said in a statement. "Stay positive. Test negative. Let’s play football."
New MSU coach Mel Tucker, who has yet to conduct his first practice in pads, also welcomed the chance to make his debut this fall.
“Our players have been relentlessly training in our strength and conditioning program, and we will be ready to compete,” Tucker said in a statement, “Thank you to all our Spartan fans for your support and the Big Ten Task Force and the medical leaders who got us here today.”
No fans allowed
However, Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour said those fans will not be permitted at conference games this season, except for a few exceptions.
“We are looking to see what we can do on a on a campus by campus basis to accommodate the families of our student-athletes, both home and away, as well as the families of staffs,” she said. “But as a conference, we've made a decision — no public sale of tickets.”
All 14 teams are expected to start games the weekend of Oct. 24, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said. The Big Ten is crafting an eight-game regular season with no byes, and a ninth game that pits equal seeds in each division against each other the week of the Big Ten championship, scheduled for Dec. 19. That is the day before the College Football Playoff pairings are expected to be announced.
“We have plenty of time to acclimate,” Alvarez said. “Our athletes have been working out, even though we postponed the season or athletes were still available to work out and put in time during the week. Their conditioning should be good, and they certainly should have plenty of time in preparation for the season. …
“The reason we came up with the eight-plus-(one), we thought it was unique. We wanted to make the season meaningful. You have a number of players that are trying to make a decision whether they're opting in or they're opting out, so we wanted to make it a meaningful season for all of them. Nine games was what we felt was very meaningful.”
Jim Phillips, Northwestern’s athletic director, said Big Ten teams should able to compete for the College Football Playoff. He pointed to conversations with Iowa AD Gary Barta, who is chair of the CFP, and Warren’s talks with CFP executive director Bill Hancock that make it “a real possibility” despite the truncated season and late start date.
“It’s something that I know our student-athletes across our 14 institutions, really, really are excited about,” Phillips said. “A chance not only with the CFP, but within the bowl structure. And it's something that's been connected with the Big Ten for a lot of years.”
Daily testing for football players, coaches and others begin by Sept. 30, and Warren said the conference will be paying for that. The conference said a number of medical protocols will apply to all other Big Ten sports before they can resume competition, and Warren said those discussions with athletic directors are planned to begin Thursday.
“Some of the fall sports (NCAA) championships have already been moved to the sooner, so we'll talk about that internally ...,” Warren said. “But we felt from a logistical standpoint, from an operational standpoint, that we needed to button down football because (of) the number of student athletes there. We figured once we got that solved, then being able to apply those same policies, procedures and protocols with the other sports will be straightforward.”
The 14 presidents and chancellors indefinitely delayed all fall sports Aug. 11 due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic and potential health issues for athletes, with the Pac-12 following suit a day later. However, the other three Power Five conferences — the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12 and Southeastern Conference — all proceeded on schedule with football. The seasons have started for ACC and Big 12 teams, while the SEC is slated to kick off Sept. 26.
One of the biggest changes that league leaders say helped in the decision to resume play is the availability of rapid testing. The Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors announced "daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and an enhanced data-driven approach when making decisions about practice/competition."
The COVID-19 testing will be for players, coaches, trainers and others who are on the field for practices and games.Test results must be completed and recorded prior to each practice or game. Players who test positive for the coronavirus through point-of-contact (POC) daily testing would require a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to confirm the result of the POC test, per the league.
“We're trying to rapidly identify anyone that may have the virus and immediately remove them from their population, whether that be practice or competition,” said Dr. Jim Borchers, Ohio State's head team physician and co-chair of the return task force medical subcommittee. “It's similar to what you have heard from the Pac-12 with the use of rapid antigen testing. … Just like everything in medicine, it's not like we invented this, but we investigated it and feel very comfortable with that approach moving forward. And 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%. And we can never say 100%, but we feel very confident that with that approach, we'll be able to make our practice and competition environments as risk-free as we possibly can with this testing approach.”
Here are more of the protocols from the Big Ten's release:
• Each school will designate a Chief Infection Officer who will oversee the collection and reporting of data for the conference. Team test positivity rate and population positivity rate thresholds will be used to determine recommendations for continuing practice and competition.
• All COVID-19 positive student-athletes will have to undergo comprehensive cardiac testing to include labs and biomarkers, ECG, Echocardiogram and a Cardiac MRI. Following cardiac evaluation, student-athletes must receive clearance from a cardiologist designated by the university for the primary purpose of cardiac clearance for COVID-19 positive student-athletes. The earliest a student-athlete can return to game competition is 21 days following a COVID-19 positive diagnosis.
• In addition to the medical protocols approved, the 14 Big Ten institutions will establish a cardiac registry in an effort to examine the effects on COVID-19 positive student-athletes. The registry and associated data will attempt to answer many of the unknowns regarding the cardiac manifestations in COVID-19 positive elite athletes.
• The Big Ten will use that data collected by the Chief Infection Officers to make decisions about the continuation of practice and competition, as determined by team positivity rate and population positivity rate, based on a seven-day rolling average.
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Big Ten football reinstated: Here's what we know