'Let them play’: Big Ten parents rally to get some answers

ROSEMONT, Ill. — Randy Wade flew in from Jacksonville, Florida. Matt Farrell drove for five-and-a-half hours from Northeast Ohio. Jay Kallenberger came from Bettendorf, Iowa. Dornaj Davis rode his Harley down from Wisconsin. Andrea Tate flew from Orlando. A little before 8 a.m. Friday, in an otherwise empty entertainment district just outside Chicago, with police blocking some roads into the complex, around 20 parents of Big Ten athletes gathered for a … well, they weren’t quite sure what the plan was. Weren’t quite sure what to call it.

Was it a rally?

A protest?

A media stunt?

A desperate plea?

The Big Ten canceled fall sports last Tuesday. Less than a week later, Wade, the father of Ohio State defensive back Shaun Wade, decided he had to do something. Because his son, and dozens of teammates, and hundreds of other Big Ten athletes, want to play. So Randy booked a flight. And a hotel room a couple hundred feet away from Big Ten headquarters. Never mind that the office is closed. Never mind that most Big Ten parents work on Fridays, or live hundreds of miles away, or both. Never mind that conference executives didn’t communicate with or acknowledge the parents. Never mind that commissioner Kevin Warren, in a Wednesday letter, said the decision “will not be revisited.”

Wade packed a Buckeyes jersey and a mask with bold white lettering: “#FIGHT.” He tweeted out his itinerary, confirmation code and all, which allowed somebody to cancel his flight reservation. He rebooked, and arrived in Illinois Thursday night anyway, and urged others to join him. Parents of football players from Ohio State, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin did. Several rescheduled meetings to be there. Some took the day off entirely. Rodney Nixon, father of Iowa defensive lineman Daviyon Nixon, told coworkers he’d be in late.

“Why?” I asked him. “Why’d you feel compelled to be here?

“To fight,” he said. “To fight. To fight for transparency. To fight for understanding. To get some questions answered.”

Around 30 reporters and cameramen showed up to hear their questions. Nobody from the conference did. They made their demands through the media instead. “There are certain things our kids can’t say,” Wade pointed out. He and other parents mentioned how schools control the public messaging. But “we can talk," Wade said of the parents.

Randy Wade, son of Ohio State's Shaun Wade, speaks to a group of parents outside Big 10 headquarters. (Yahoo Sports)
Randy Wade, son of Ohio State's Shaun Wade, speaks to a group of parents outside Big 10 headquarters. (Yahoo Sports)

So they did, for around a half hour in total. "The reason we out here is because we want to have conversation,” Wade said. “That's simple. We want to have a conversation. We want to play in the fall, but regardless of playing in the fall, we want to have conversation before the spring, before next fall. … I want commissioner Kevin Warren to have a Zoom call with all 14 Big Ten parents associations.”

A reporter mentioned that Warren, in his letter, said the decision wouldn’t be revisited.

"That's not an option. Our kids play for you. That's not an option,” Wade said. “We need to talk about it.”

“Exactly,” said Tate, the mother of Ohio State defensive back Sevyn Banks. “Exactly.”

"Listen, our kids are grown men,” said Kallenberger, the father of Iowa offensive lineman Mark Kallenberger. “They can make their own decision.”

The rest of the parents stood behind Wade, and then behind Kallenberger, and others who stepped up to microphones. A few Iowa parents brought signs: “WE WANT TO PLAY” and “LET THEM PLAY!” When Wade finished speaking, he turned to them, and they all began chanting: “Let us play! Let us play!”

And Wade clarified: “When we say, ‘Let us play,’ we don't necessarily mean play for the fall. When we say, ‘Let us play,’ we mean, show us transparency. When we say, ‘Let us play,’ we mean, communicate. When we say ‘Let us play,’ we mean, our kids are important to us.”

Essentially, they want the Big Ten to explain, in more detail, how it came to its decision. And if the conference won’t listen to their sons, they want it to listen to them. The players, said Kyle Borland, father of Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland, “basically self-quarantined for months. They weighed the benefits versus the risk of playing the game that they love. In [Tuf’s] opinion, in our opinions as parents, the benefits outweighed the risk. And to have that pulled, after the work they put in the last three months, without any more information, is sad for those kids."

That message came across loud and clear on a long patch of turf surrounded by taverns and retail stores in suburban Chicago. Police told Wade he and the others couldn’t congregate directly in front of the Big Ten office. That, they told him, is private property. They settled for a group photo with the office in the background. Then they chatted among themselves. Two women in Michigan apparel showed up an hour late, after the event had died down. Two teens in Ohio State t-shirts walked by. “O-H!” one yelled. “I-O!” the Buckeye parents responded.

Then they scattered. Did they accomplish anything? They didn’t know. The turnout was weaker than many expected. Reporters outnumbered parents.

Wade, though, was undeterred. “If this wasn’t big enough,” he told a fellow parent, “we can do another one.”

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