Big Ten reverses field, set to play football this autumn after all

The conference had said in August that it would postpone the season because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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By David K. Li

The Big Ten Conference announced Wednesday that it will play football this fall, a stunning reversal from the league's move last month to push back the 2020 season because of the coronavirus pandemic.

About nine hours after the Big Ten's announcement, the Pacific-12 Conference — which had also shelved fall football — made its most substantive statement yet that games could also be back on in 2020.

The head-spinning day of off-the-field college football action kicked off midmorning Wednesday, when the Big Ten — a league of 14 universities, representing some of the nation's most prestigious schools and storied football programs — announced that it would return to the field next month.

"The Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors (COP/C) adopted significant medical protocols and has voted unanimously to resume the football season starting the weekend of October 23-24, 2020," according to a conference statement.

Commissioner Kevin Warren defended the league's 180-degree turn, saying conditions — specifically, rapid testing technology — had changed.

"This is a fluid situation, and we always wanted to make sure we put the health and safety of our student-athletes at the forefront," Warren told reporters.

"We need to adapt," he said. "The world that we live in today ... we need to be able to adapt, and based upon the standards that were set by our chancellors and presidents from day one is that we need to make sure we create an environment that will allow for our student athletes to participate in intercollegiate athletics in a healthy and safe environment."

Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro said Big Ten leaders were uniform in their decision to move forward with fall football.

"The medical advice I relied on when I voted five weeks ago said there was virtually no chance" to safely play football in 2020, Schapiro said. "The facts changed. Our minds changed."

New protocols will include daily testing for players and team staff members starting Sept. 30, and each university is to appoint an infection officer to oversee testing. Other safety measures are to include:

  • Players who test positive for the coronavirus will be sidelined for 21 days.
  • Players who test positive must also "undergo comprehensive cardiac testing" before getting back on the field.
  • If a team's positive test rate tops 5 percent, all of its practices and games will stop for at least seven days.

"What we're putting forward still requires prevention. It requires accountability from everyone involved ... to be doing the things to prevent getting this infection," said Dr. Jim Borchers, head team physician at Ohio State University, who is co-chair of the Big Ten's Return to Competition Task Force medical subcommittee. "Our progress will be measured by their efforts."

The conference said Aug. 11 that it was too risky to play with America still struggling to contain the virus, which has killed nearly 200,000 people in the U.S. The plan was to stage an unprecedented spring football season if the virus was under control.

But the move drew immediate pushback from football-loving critics, particularly at Ohio State and the University of Nebraska, who insisted that the sport could be played safely.

And in recent days, proponents of fall football argued that improvements in rapid testing could answer concerns cited in last month's Big Ten announcement to postpone football and all other fall sports.

The pressure to strap on helmets this fall has grown in recent weeks, as three other prominent college football conferences went forward with shortened seasons. Schools of the Big 12 and the Atlantic Coast Conference have already played games in front of limited crowds, and the powerful Southeastern Conference kicks off Sept. 26.

The Big Ten's reversal troubled some epidemiologists and public health experts, who said that, despite better and more rapid testing, the virus is still a threat.

Dr. Dan Diekema, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa's Carver College of Medicine, cited the outbreaks at universities and within college football teams as proof it's still not safe to play.

"I have a lot of concerns. I actually think the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Mountain West got it right the first time," Diekema said Wednesday afternoon after the Big Ten announcement. "I don't thing anything has changed from the pandemic side that would make it safer."

The new Big Ten football schedule will be released later this week, University of Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said.

Each team will play eight scheduled games before the final weekend, when the first-place team of the West Division will play the top team of the East Division for the conference championship.

Also on that last weekend, the two second-place teams will face off, the third-place teams will play each other and so on, providing each school with nine games.

"Very unique champions week," said Alvarez, a former Badgers football coach. "It gives everyone an opportunity to play nine games."

This season's Big Ten games won't be open to the general public, although some family members could be allowed inside, Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said.

The University of Notre Dame, which isn't in the Big Ten but plays home games in South Bend, Indiana, the same Midwest region as most of the conference's teams, opened its season Saturday playing in front of a limited crowd of 10,097.

Iowa State University — a member of the Big 12, unlike its instate rival, Iowa, of the Big Ten — also opened the season Saturday with no fans inside.

"We are looking to see what we can do on a campus-by-campus basis to accommodate the families of our student-athletes both home and away, as well as the families of staff," Barbour told reporters in a conference call. "But as a conference, we've made a decision: no public sale of tickets."

The conference's announcement didn't cover potential starting dates for any other fall sport postponed because of coronavirus concerns. When those sports do return, athletes will have to submit to daily testing, the Big Ten said Wednesday.

"Eventually all Big Ten sports will require testing protocols before they can resume competition," the conference said. "Updates regarding fall sports other than football, as well as winter sports that begin in the fall including men's and women's basketball, men's ice hockey, men's and women's swimming and diving, and wrestling, will be announced shortly."

The Big Ten's about-face leaves the Pac-12 as the lone so-called Power Five league not yet committed to fall football, although Pac-12 officials have hinted that advancements in rapid testing could bring the sport back sooner rather than later.

But by early Wednesday evening, the Pac-12 announced that Govs. Gavin Newsom of California and Kate Brown of Oregon had lifted restrictions against contact practice and games, opening the door to all member schools to possibly get back on the field.

While Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott fell well short of announcing a restart like the Big Ten's, he strongly hinted that wheels are in motion for games to start again.

"We appreciate Governor Newsom's and Governor Brown's support, the former of which is consistent with the very productive conversation that he and I had earlier today," Scott said in a statement.

"Our California and Oregon universities will now each individually and immediately reach out to their relevant county public health officials to seek clarification on what is required to achieve the same clearance to resume contact practice and competition. We are eager for our student-athletes to have the opportunity to play this season, as soon as it can be done safely and in accordance with public health authority approvals."

The new Big Ten schedule, with a Dec. 19 title game, also appears to make the league eligible for college football's postseason.

The sport's top level, the Football Bowl Subdivision, holds a postseason tournament that isn't under the control of the NCAA. Instead, the four-team knockout competition is administered by the College Football Playoff, which expects to pick the semifinalists Dec. 20.

The championship game is set for Jan. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.

President Donald Trump claimed credit for pressing the Big Ten to play this fall.

"Thank you to the players, coaches, parents, and all school representatives," he tweeted. "It is my great honor to have helped!!!"

Later, at a White House briefing, Trump again congratulated the Big Ten, but also asked that the league reconsider allowing fans inside and urged the Pac-12 to reinstate fall football.

A Big Ten member president insisted that Trump's calls to play football this fall played no role in the league's decisions.

"President Trump had nothing to do with our decision and did not impact the deliberations," said the school president, who didn't wish to be identified. "In fact, when his name came up, it was a negative, because no one wanted this to be political."

Peter Alexander contributed.