Big Ten football is back from the brink of 2020 oblivion, thanks to an 11th-hour effort to upgrade medical protocols—and a lot of public pressure. After embattled commissioner Kevin Warren was joined in a Wednesday press conference by Northwestern president Morton Schapiro; athletic directors Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin), Sandy Barbour (Penn State) and Jim Phillips (Northwestern); and conference medical advisory group chair James Borchers (Ohio State); here are 10 items of interest from a dramatic and divisive period in the oldest and richest college football league.
1. In just six weeks, the Big Ten went from claiming it couldn’t safely play because of a) heart-related issues and b) an inability to test/contact trace appropriately, to announcing an October kickoff to the season. So what changed? The doctors changed their medical opinion, according to Big Ten officials, due to advancements in testing and deeper knowledge of myocarditis.
“The medical advice changes. The facts changed and our minds changed,” says Schapiro.
2. Warren doesn’t want to talk about the past. He’s moving forward and did his best Wednesday to dance around questions about this six-week ordeal in which lawsuits were filed, attacks were made and even a protest (though small) broke out in front of Big Ten headquarters.
“One of the easy things to do is turn around, look back and say what was ‘poor’ and what was ‘good,’ ” he says. “We’re passionate in the Big Ten. … I take that as a positive.”
3. The Big Ten is playing nine games in nine weeks. After all the talk about safety and athlete health care, is that really safe? A reporter Wednesday wisely asked that question during a conference call with Ohio State team physician James Borchers.
“We know that that’s a significant number of games but it’s been done in the past,” says Borchers. “Our medical subcommittee recommended it was safe to move forward.”
4. The Big Ten had as many high-level players opt out as any league. Some of them might now opt back in. Ohio State’s tandem of offensive guard Wyatt Davis and defensive back Shaun Wade have been in contact with the school, sources told Sports Illustrated. Rondale Moore could have a pathway to return to Purdue. Others could do the same.
Obviously, signing with an agent, or accepting benefits from one, would greatly complicate matters in terms of NCAA compliance. But lawyer Tom Mars, who has been the thick of the Big Ten fight, could wind up representing players in a situation of trying to regain eligibility. Mars pointed Wednesday to the case of Arizona State punter Michael Turk, who had his eligibility restored in June after going undrafted and unsigned in the NFL. The caveat there: Turk had not signed with an agent.
5. The Big Ten said the league was unanimous in its decision to reverse course and play football this fall. There is no unanimity of enthusiasm. Look no further than Rutgers’s tepid statement, which came without names of the president, athletic director or head coach attached.
It read in part: “Assessments of the conditions at Rutgers, as well as those for each opponent, will be made regarding all upcoming games. 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.”
It was just last week when president Jonathan Holloway showed a clear dislike for the idea of playing football this fall in comments to NJ.com: “If I’m wrong because I was erring on the side of safety, I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t think I’m wrong, though. I just don’t think it. And if I had to put money down, we’re going to see some radical changes within a month—no later than October. I’m really worried about what we’re heading toward, on just college campuses in general, not just sports. It’s deeply concerning.”
Holloway wasn’t the only president conflicted by the process. Northwestern’s Schapiro, head of the Big Ten’s council of presidents and chancellors, admitted that this was a difficult decision.
“It wasn’t about political pressure,” he says of the return to play. “It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about what anyone else was doing. … Even a week ago I wasn’t convinced to be part of this going forward. I’ve been grappling with that every day, including the call last night. … If we could play football safely and are able to do it, I don’t see any reason not to go forward.”
6. Daily testing of players is planned to start “no later than” Sept. 30, per Borchers, the Ohio State team doctor. But full 20-hour-week practices will start “immediately” per Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez. That leaves a gap of up to two weeks wherein testing will be less rigorous.
But with games not starting until Oct. 23–24, the 21-day window of being withheld from play would seemingly allow a player to test positive before October and still be able to compete in the season opener.
7. One of the strange karmic twists of this saga is that the Big Ten’s path back to playing was in large part cleared by Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who announced on Sept. 3 that his conference had partnered with Quidel for daily testing of the league’s athletes. That was hailed as a game changer, but it wound up changing the game more for the Big Ten than the Pac-12.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Pac-12 remains hamstrung by state and local regulations that are not allowing half the league (USC, UCLA, California, Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State) to even practice. There also are raging wildfires in those two states that have periodically suspended workouts in other sports due to unsafe air quality. Ultimately, the Pac-12 might have helped others more than it could help itself.
8. The Big Ten’s hurdles are not quite over. Not near over, in fact. The conference didn’t build in any bye weeks for potential game interruptions. The league also has a 21-day suspension of play for players testing positive and has a shutdown threshold of 5% positivity rate on a team.
Why the 21-day return period for positives? Players cannot return without a multistep heart-screening process. That screening can’t take place until 14 days from a positive. Add that time to an acclimation period and you get 21, Borchers says.
9. The Big Ten’s decision to add a round of East-vs.-West games on what will be the last weekend of the regular season (Dec. 18–19), gives everyone a theoretical ninth game. The matchups of division champions, then division runners-up, then third-place teams, and so on, are a novel approach that could generate some interest.
They also could be bitterly cold. Assume the championship game will be played indoors (Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, is scheduled to be booked on Sunday the 20th for a game against the Texans, but there are other options). What about the other games? There are some other indoor options. But playing outdoors in Minneapolis, Madison, East Lansing, Ann Arbor or State College in the latter half of December sounds brutal.
Another problem (for all the leagues) with playing three weeks into December: Finals week was supposed to be sacrosanct, a no-play zone as colleges attempt to uphold at least the appearance of academic priority. This year, that’s out the window.
10. Despite the Big Ten’s black eye lately, Warren & Co. believe the league did the right thing. While other conferences showed patience and expected advancements in testing—delaying their seasons instead of completely postponing—the Big Ten pulled the trigger on postponing and then had to reverse course for a public relations nightmare.
Still, says Warren: “It’s a blessing to be here today. I’m just proud to be part of the Big Ten. … That’s why the Big Ten is the Big Ten. We will take a leadership role and put the health and safety of our student athletes” at the top.