Big Ten’s football reversal may spur other changes to fall sports

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Dive Brief:

  • After being applauded for suspending its football season amid the public health crisis, the Big Ten, a top NCAA Division I conference, reconsidered and said Wednesday the season would go on.

  • The league’s university heads voted unanimously to start playing again in late October, according to its public announcement, which stressed student-athletes, coaches and other sports staff who are on the field for games and practices will undergo daily coronavirus testing. 

  • The Big Ten was under pressure to resume play from student-athletes, fans, and high-level athletics officials and politicians, including President Donald Trump. Its reversal might prompt another major conference to change course. 

Dive Insight:

The Big Ten earned some praise when it said in August that it would postpone football, citing uncertainties around the coronavirus. It was one of the first major college sports conferences to do so. 

However, skeptics of the decision remained, even in the league’s own circles, such as high-profile student-athletes and coaches. Besides the president, these included political figures, such as Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, who was in contact with Ohio State about the possibility of hosting the season. Trump took partial credit in a tweet Wednesday when it ultimately made the call.

But there were likely other factors that led the league to walk back its plans, said David Ridpath, a sports management professor at Ohio University and past president of the Drake Group, which promotes protections for college athletes. After the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences paused their seasons, it was widely assumed the other three leagues comprising the Power Five, the wealthiest and most influential of NCAA Division I, would do the same. They did not. The Pac-12 is now the only Power Five conference that doesn’t intend to play this fall, and similar forces are urging it to resume competition.

Big Ten presidents likely couldn’t ignore their biggest competitors moving forward with the fall season, while also losing out on a huge chunk of revenue, Ridpath said. Some schools within the big conferences earn hundreds of millions of dollars from lucrative television contracts, and many endured major budget losses from refunding housing fees in the spring and other auxiliary revenue. 

“This is foremost a business, a multibillion dollar business,” Ridpath said.

But right up until the reversal was renounced, a Big Ten football season was uncertain.

Rebecca Blank, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Big Ten institution, testified before a senate committee regarding college athletes Tuesday that the league was worried about adequate testing and long-term cardiac complications related to the virus. Until those concerns were assuaged, Blank said, conference leaders wouldn’t change their minds. 

However, Walter Harrison, past chair of the NCAA’s former top governing board, said he took the Big Ten presidents at their word that they had thoroughly investigated safety measures.

“Increased medical and public health data about the virus and improved testing protocols now persuade them it is safe for the student-athletes to play and coaches and staff to do their required duties,” Harrison said. But, he added, “we will all see whether they are correct or foolhardy. They know that, and I am sure they took this very seriously.”

Earlier this month, the Pac-12 and the Big 12, another Power Five conference, partnered with healthcare corporations to offer rapid testing. The daily testing will be a key part of the Big Ten’s plans to restart football, along with cardiac monitoring if a student-athlete tests positive for the coronavirus.

Big Ten student-athletes have already caught it. The University of Maryland, College Park’s football team, for example, recently stopped practicing after 46 athletes across 10 teams tested positive, The Washington Post reported

The availability of rapid testing likely influenced the Big Ten’s decision, Josephine Potuto, a law professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a former member of the NCAA’s Division I infractions committee. But whether these protocols will help insulate players from the virus remains to be seen, she added.

“What you don’t know is how many athletes may test positive and have to sit out. Is it feasible then to really have a football game?,” Potuto said, citing recent remarks by the Louisiana State University football coach that “most” of his players contracted the virus. 

The Big Ten “may have also underestimated the amount of pushback, from players, and families, and from politicians,” she said. “If they did, they were a little naive about it.”

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