Most of us whose daily lives are immersed in covering college football saw this coming. There are some columnists out there pretending they didn’t, feigning shock, acting all aghast. But the Big Ten’s scheduled return to the gridiron in October after initially postponing the season because of the pandemic stands as just about the least surprising story to hit the sports ticker last week.
Why? Well, that’s really just one of the many questions that arose from the Big Ten’s decision Wednesday, ones that revolve around whether programs like Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State can truly compete for a national championship, to the ethics of playing at all.
Here are some of those questions, along with a few uncomfortable-but-honest answers.
Is it safe to play?
The Big Ten believes it is, thanks to its aggressive testing protocols that allow student-athletes, coaches, staffers, officials — anybody who is going to be on the field, really — to receive daily, rapid-result testing.
Conceivably, the Big Ten figures that if it can separate someone who tests positive from a relatively small community of people, like a football team, immediately after that test, it can almost eliminate the spread of infection.
“We’re very likely to reduce infectiousness inside practice and game competitions to near 100 percent,” said Dr. Jim Borchers, the Ohio State team physician who co-chaired the conference’s medical subcommittee. “We can never say 100 percent, 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. That’s an approach … that we felt very confident about.”
In other words, nobody taking a field for practice or a game will do so without having tested negative for COVID-19. So, the game should be safe.
Why play now? Has anything really changed since August?
Let’s answer the second question first.
Might be uncomfortable for some to accept, but as far as the virus is concerned, there’s certainly more of a spread on college campuses since Aug. 11. In fact, Penn State’s athletics department reported positivity rates of greater than 5 percent among tested student athletes in each of the last two weeks, numbers vice president for intercollegiate athletics Sandy Barbour said both she expected to fall and simultaneously concerned her. The last week of August, just one person tested came back positive.
At schools like Maryland, Wisconsin and Michigan States, the positive tests are even more stark.
For the conference, it all comes back to the improved testing methods, which they say have changed considerably.
“The medical advice I relied on when I voted (to postpone) five weeks ago said there was virtually no chance that we could do it safely,” said Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern University, which is allowing fewer than 1,000 students on campus over concerns about the virus. “Then, medical opinion changed. There had been a lot of advances in terms of understanding the pandemic and myocarditis and the like over the past five weeks. Paul Samuelson, the great economist, once was asked why he changed his mind and he said, ‘When the facts change, my mind changes.’ The facts changed, our minds changed.”
Once they felt they minimized the risk, they could go about answering the first question. Why play now?
Which leads to another question …
Is it ethically right to play?
Not sure when we started expecting college athletics to be a beacon of our moral principles, but let’s put it this way: You know what the Big Ten is, right? It’s a major athletic conference.
It may package itself as a major athletic conference that demands high academic standards be met. It may, more often than not, act in that regard at least in comparison to the NCAA’s other four major conferences. But its role is to govern the 14 schools’ athletic programs, which it has guided to unprecedented on-field success and riches.
The Big Ten postponed its fall sports seasons in August, no doubt thinking the other power conferences would “do the right thing” and follow suit. The Pac-12 did. The SEC, Big 12 and ACC did not, and once they dug in their heels, the Big Ten had a decision to make:
Reconsider the call to postpone, or let your competitors ravage your business.
When you’re out of sight in the sports world, you’re out of mind, and that’s especially critical when the lifeblood of your industry is a combination of season ticket sales and recruiting. To sell tickets, you have to sell the future. To build the future, you have to persuade the best prospects in the nation that what you’ve got going on in your college town is better than what’s happening in the next one. You have to prove you can develop players and get them to the next level. You have to prove football is serious to you.
Right or wrong, none of that was going to be easy for the Big Ten, which had to realize the SEC and Big 12 were going to question the conference’s level of dedication. It would have taken years for the Big Ten to recover had it sat still. Sadly, the biggest fear for the conference had to be the SEC, Big 12 and ACC proceeding successfully.
What is their testing policy, by the way?
It’s very easy, as some have done, to “tsk tsk tsk” the Big Ten for “caving” to pressure, for being too much like the others — while pooh-poohing what the others’ decision to press on because they “sell their soul” to football routinely. But frankly, we live in a capitalist society, not an ethical one, and the two intersect far too infrequently.
It’d be nice to spend money on daily antigen testing for teachers and students and doctors and nurses before student-athletes. But that’s not what the Big Ten does. The Big Ten sells athletics. It can afford to make sure athletics go on now, so they can go on again in the future when all of this is, hopefully, behind us.
So, thousands of student-athletes will get on a football field this October, and 14 schools will compete for championships and one more conference will avoid losing tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Hopefully, people like Borchers and Schapiro are right, and the testing the Big Ten will undertake practically eliminates risk. Hopefully, the season gets in and players don’t get sick. Or worse.
Time will tell if they’re counting money or tragedies. Unfortunately, one doesn’t stop the other these days.
Donnie Collins has been a member of The Times-Tribune sports staff for nearly 20 years and has been the Penn State football beat writer for Times-Shamrock Newspapers since 2004. The Penn State Football Blog covers Nittany Lions, Big Ten and big-time college football news from Beaver Stadium to the practice field, the bowl game to National Letter of Intent Signing Day. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5368; @DonnieCollinsTT