Column: The Big Ten has questions to answer after POSTPONINg fall Football

The Big Ten canceled fall football on August 11. The question is: why now?

By Eric Rynston-Lobel

We all saw this coming.

The 2020 Big Ten football season won’t happen this fall. But why did the decision come so abruptly?

The feeling reminds me of my Little League baseball days—you knew there was going to be a thunderstorm around game time, but you held out hope that somehow the game would be played. Once it started pouring and the game was canceled, your heart still dropped in disappointment.

Magnify that feeling a million times and you have the current situation. Playing college football in a pandemic was never expected to be easy. A bubble would be impossible, student-athletes would be on campus with regular students and testing wouldn’t be conducted every day. But what’s most astounding is the abruptness with which it appears this decision was made. After having five months to prepare for this moment, the biggest question college athletics has to answer is why now?

“Northwestern had a great medical plan for the season, and we were eager to play this year,” a Northwestern football player told WNUR Sports. “I think all of us [are] frustrated and disappointed with the lack of upfront communication from the NCAA and Big Ten. Our coaches and staff at NU have done all they possibly could, but the issues go far beyond Northwestern itself.”

At the very least, the NCAA and the Big Ten could’ve engaged with the student-athletes. A number of Northwestern football players including quarterback T.J. Green expressed frustration with the poor communication on Twitter.

Just a month ago, a Stadium survey found that while there was a general agreement that the season wouldn’t start on time (73% expected a delay), the overriding sentiment appeared to revolve around a conference-only schedule starting in September or October.

Only 11% of the 130 FBS athletic directors thought college football would be played in the spring under a conference-only schedule. Just 3% of Power Five ADs thought there would be a 12-game spring season. A fall season of some sort seemed probable.

When this survey was published on July 9, the United States averaged over 53,000 new COVID-19 cases per day on the way to a peak of about 75,000 new daily cases a week later, according to the New York Times database. In the last week, the U.S. has also averaged roughly 53,000 cases per day but has started to see a slow decline. In other words, the COVID-19 situation from a positive cases standpoint is roughly equivalent, if not better than it was a month ago when almost 90% of FBS ADs expected to have a fall season.

The recent cause for caution stems from the potential long-term impacts of COVID-19. In a Sports Illustrated story published on Sunday, Ross Dellenger discusses myocarditis, a heart condition that appears to plague otherwise healthy COVID-19 victims, including some athletes like Eduardo Rodriguez of the Boston Red Sox. Dellenger quotes a university team doctor who calls this “the final straw,” and adds that “the commissioners are finally figuring it all out.”

Finally? The Harvard Gazette wrote back in April about the damage COVID-19 appears to do to the lungs and the heart. That was four months ago. Why are commissioners now realizing this? If the long-term implications of COVID-19 are in fact the “final straw,” how did we make it this far before a postponement? 

Whatever the real reason is for postponing the season, why did the Big Ten restart practices last week if they knew the season was unlikely to start on time? On August 5, the day of the Big Ten schedule release, Commissioner Kevin Warren said he felt “…good and comfortable to release a schedule” and reiterated the same feeling about starting up practices, according to ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg.

Rittenberg also noted Warren’s comment about the importance of taking everything day by day. The first-year commissioner surely deserves credit for projecting the uncertainties of trying to play in the fall, contrary to the unrealistic optimism of other conference commissioners. But how is it that just last week Warren is comfortable with teams starting practice and less than a week later, the season is off? What information that he didn’t know on August 5 does he know now?

Outbreaks at Rutgers and several other Big Ten schools were far enough in the past that those don’t seem to have moved the needle in the direction of postponement. The potential long-term effects of COVID-19 were documented months ago. Conferences have had plenty of time to develop protocols for effective testing, quarantining and contact tracing methods. And, the players want to play, which is the final mind-boggling aspect of this. 

If there was a season, players would be tested far more than they would if they were still at home (or just regular college students), they would be in environments where additional precautions are taken and there would be less of an incentive to break these rules if they wanted to have a season.

Now with no season in the immediate future, what’s to say players will still exercise strong judgment? What’s to say players won’t go to parties or other places where COVID-19 could easily spread? The same is true for general college students—regardless of whether they’re on campus, they’re still likely hanging out with friends and are at the same risk of testing positive. The point is, college football players will still contract COVID-19, people just won’t be able to “blame” the Big Ten or NCAA for “recklessly” allowing the players to have a season.

The optics of this aren’t good. With so little clarity on the decision-making process, it’s hard to know exactly how these deliberations progressed. This was never going to be an easy decision one way or the other, but it could’ve been handled so much better. 

We saw this coming at some point, but the way this decision transpired leaves so many more questions than answers. Answers which neither the players nor the fans will probably ever know.