ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit apologizes for floating conspiracy that Michigan would use COVID-19 to avoid playing Ohio State

Kirk Herbstreit quickly apologized for what he said about Michigan during Tuesday night’s College Football Playoff rankings show.

Herbstreit tweeted out an apology video an hour after the show apologizing to Michigan and its fans for saying that Michigan could use COVID-19 as an excuse to not play Ohio State on Dec. 12. Michigan has held all team activities virtually over the last two days “out of an abundance of caution” due to COVID-19 test results.

On the show, Herbstreit said that he thought Michigan “waves the white flag and potentially avoids playing Ohio State next week” via COVID-19 protocols. The Wolverines not playing against the Buckeyes would mean three canceled games for Ohio State and prevent OSU from being eligible for the Big Ten title game.

“I had no business at all saying that,” Herbstreit said in his apology. “I have no evidence of that. It’s completely unfair to the University of Michigan, to Jim Harbaugh, to his players and coaches and I just want to apologize.”

Herbstreit said in the video that he “misspoke” and had gotten to the point where he was frustrated with players opting out and the toll that COVID-19 has taken on the 2020 season. His comments about Michigan, however, were not simply a one-liner. Herbstreit expounded significantly on why he thought the Wolverines could avoid playing Ohio State — and hurt their hated rivals’ playoff hopes in the process.

“Again, I did not mean to insinuate — I have no evidence at all,” Herbstreit said in the above video. “Michigan right now they’re trying to do the best they can to cover and contain a virus from spreading on that roster. I wish them all the best. I hope they can play Saturday against Maryland. Hope they can play against Ohio State.”

Herbstreit is ESPN’s top college football analyst and played quarterback at Ohio State.

What Kirk Herbstreit said on ESPN

The Buckeyes didn’t play against Illinois in Week 13 because of COVID-19 cases within the program as part of a decision to prevent a larger outbreak across the team. The Buckeyes had met only one of the two Big Ten COVID-19 thresholds for game cancellation before the game was called off.

That context likely led into Herbstreit’s thought process ahead of Tuesday night’s show. Since Ohio State made the decision to cancel a game despite not meeting both of the Big Ten’s benchmarks, Michigan — or any other team — could also choose to do what the No. 4 Buckeyes did.

“The fact that [Ohio State has] played four games and they’re still sitting there in the top four, it comes down to they’re going to play Michigan State on Saturday. I still think Michigan waves the white flag and potentially avoids playing Ohio State next week and then [Ohio State will] potentially get a game on the 19th. They could be sitting there with six games.”

He then asked fellow panel member David Pollack if Michigan canceling the game would be fair.

“And Michigan, is that fair David? Michigan could opt out basically of that game and keep Ohio State out of six games to qualify for the Big Ten championship. That doesn’t make sense to me. But that could potentially happen next week.”

A lack of a Big Ten championship could hurt Ohio State’s playoff hopes even if the Buckeyes finish the season at 6-0. The committee has shown through the first two weeks of its rankings that it’s taking a team’s number of games into consideration. No. 2 Notre Dame, for example, has already played nine games.

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 23:   ABC football analyst Kirk Herbstreit looks on before the college football game between the Oregon Ducks and the Arizona State Sun Devils on November 23, 2019 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit apologized for what he said about Michigan. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rece Davis pushed back

After Herbstreit first pushed his Michigan conspiracy out on television, host Rece Davis gave him the chance to clarify his remarks.

“I’m not going to sit here and let this stand that you guys just implied — and perhaps you’d want to, I’ll give you a chance to clarify if you want — that Michigan will opt out of the game and dodge the game simply to keep Ohio State out of the championship game,” Davis said.

“If you’re being facetious that’s perfectly fine, but I want to give you a chance to clarify there because I don’t believe that for a second. They might not be able to play because they paused activities but I don’t think they’ll dodge it.”

Herbstreit then backtracked a bit and said he had no inside knowledge of Michigan’s COVID-19 testing situation but said that he had heard from unnamed coaches around the country who felt that teams were using COVID-19 as a way to dodge opponents.

It’s a theory that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney publicly espoused after Florida State couldn’t agree to play the Tigers two weeks ago after a backup Clemson offensive lineman learned he had tested positive for COVID-19 after traveling to Tallahassee with the team.

“I don’t know all the — I know they shut down their operation this week,” Herbstreit said. “And I don’t know all the numbers as far as their COVID is concerned. I’m just saying we live in such a strange world that — I’ve talked to a lot of coaches around the country that have said they really feel teams are opting out to avoid playing in games. Because they don’t want to get humiliated. They don’t want to lose with the team that they have.

“They don’t necessarily have too many COVID positives, they just don’t want to have to take the field with the team they have and go get embarrassed so they’re basically waving the white flag and saying we can’t play.”

“So there’s a lot of that that’s being talked about around the country. I’m not suggesting — I have no idea what Michigan’s situation is. I’m saying they have the power to potentially say ‘Hey, we can’t play next week’ and there’s nothing Ohio State could do about it if they decide to say that.”

Conferences across the country implemented roster minimums ahead of the season because of COVID-19. While those standards vary from conference to conference, many of them contain provisions that allow for the cancellation of a game if a team has fewer than a specific number of available scholarship players or does not meet a minimum number of players at a certain position due to positive tests and contact tracing.

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