Column: The Big Ten’s Decision Isn’t as Dangerous as We’re Led to Believe

By Eric Rynston-Lobel

I should only be so lucky to become as accomplished in sports journalism as Kurt Streeter and Christine Brennan. But on the issue of the Big Ten reversing course and announcing football season will begin in mid-October, they are wrong. Both expressed significant opposition to the decision on Wednesday.

I like to think of myself as someone who believes in listening to the scientists. I understood the Big Ten’s decision to postpone the season in mid-August because it appeared that’s what the conference’s medical experts believed was right. Now, those same medical experts approve moving forward, so it makes sense to respect that decision too. 

In a press conference on Wednesday, Dr. Jeff Mjaanes, the head team physician for Northwestern, expressed confidence in the safety regarding the restart.

“For us, I think the game changer was really the fact that there’d been significant advancements in testing, primarily this antigen testing,” he said. “It can actually detect a level of virus that is thought to be below the level of infectivity. So basically, you’re catching somebody with a positive before they’re even contagious. That’s a huge breakthrough in this.”

In an article published in the New York Times on Thursday, Streeter argues that the Big Ten put profits over health and safety. I whole-heartedly agree with the notion that money played a big role in the decision. However, he presents an additional point that I discussed in a column last month. He says:

“It will be next to impossible to keep an 18-year-old football player who has contracted the virus — but feels just fine — from seeing his girlfriend, going to campus parties, or returning home for grandma’s birthday.”

But why is an 18-year-old football player more likely to engage in these activities during football season than if it was postponed? At least at Northwestern, most of the football players are still living in Evanston, so why does postponing the season eliminate the possibility of these behaviors? If anything, players will be tested more frequently than if they weren’t playing, so they would be less of a risk to the community. Also, why are football players the only ones who could behave this way? Are regular college students immune from such careless behaviors?

Streeter ends his story with a quote from Dr. Ali Mokdad, a professor at the University of Washington. Mokdad says football should not be played right now. 

I understand Streeter may not have been able to reach them for comment, but the Big Ten has some of the greatest medical researchers in the country, yet none of them are quoted in the story. Instead of ending on a fearful note, why not let the Big Ten scientists explain why they think it is safe to resume football?

Brennan called Wednesday’s decision the “darkest day in conference’s sports history.” She later acknowledged on Twitter the horrific sex-abuse scandals involving Jerry Sandusky, Larry Nassar and others and said her argument focuses on conference-wide decisions, not individual instances at Big Ten Universities. With that being said, calling an opportunity for the players to play the “darkest day” in Big Ten history is much too dramatic. 

I will not for a second refute that there are risks the Big Ten is taking by making this decision. But throughout this whole process, I’ve reminded myself to think of the alternative: would these athletes be significantly safer by not playing? They would still do all the things college kids do, and they wouldn’t be getting tested as frequently, so my answer to that question is no. 

Science can be complicated. Science can be counterintuitive. Science can be confusing. That’s why it was best to listen to the Big Ten scientists when they said it was unsafe to play in August. Why shouldn’t we trust them when they say it’s safe to play in October? 

The views expressed in this story are those of the writer, not necessarily those of WNUR Sports as a whole. If you have comments or feedback on this column, please email