Five weeks after moving to shut down fall sports due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Big Ten Conference has dramatically changed course and will now revive its 2020 college football season beginning the weekend of October 23-24.
In a move expected in recent days, the conference voted unanimously for each member team to play a truncated eight-game regular season that will then conclude with a scheduled December 19 championship game in Indianapolis, Indiana. That vote marked a broad shift in thought from the prior 11-3 vote early last month to not stage the 2020 season.
Heavily fueling the return of play is an enlarged set of health and safety protocols that will include daily testing beginning September 30 with rapid results. If a team’s positivity rate exceeds 5 per cent, they must pause practice and competition for at least seven days.
Any player who tests positive must also be withheld from game competition for 21 days, undergo comprehensive cardiac testing, and be be part of a cardiac registry that will study the effects of Covid-19 on cardiac health.
“The biggest thing we all have to realize is this is a fluid situation,” said Kevin Warren, Big Ten commissioner. “We always wanted to make sure we put the health and safety our student-athletes at the forefront of all our decisions. This is also a situation where we need to adapt.
“We needed to make sure we created an environment that would allow for our student-athletes to compete in intercollegiate athletics in a safe and healthy environment and the standards we needed. Once we reached the point and felt comfortable we could proceed forward, and be able to create that environment, we were able to go forward,” Warren said.
The move, putting the Big Ten back in alignment with fellow Power Five conferences the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, and Southeastern that are still playing football this season, should give the conference champion a chance to compete for the college football national championship, as the Big Ten title game will be held a day before the selection of teams for the College Football Playoff.
During the weekend of the Big Ten championship game, the conference is also planning to give each of its other teams not competing for its title a ninth game based on final regular season standings.
The Big Ten’s reversal for football will also allow the conference to keep largely intact its robust media revenue, including a key portion of its more than $440m in combined annual media rights revenue from several networks before considering its own Big Ten Network.
Big Ten football games this season are set to still be held on member campuses, without attendance from the general public, though efforts are being made on a school-by-school basis to allow the presence of families of players and staff. Practices can begin immediately.
“Over the past month, I could sense the anticipation from our players and coaches, and I’m thrilled on their behalf that they will have a chance to play a 2020 season,” said Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh. “Stay positive. Test negative. Let’s play football.”
The conference plans to issue updates shortly on the status of other fall sports, as well as winter sports that begin in the fall such as men’s and women’s basketball.
The Big Ten issue over the past month was of keen interest to US President Donald Trump, who repeatedly pushed the Big Ten to revive play.
“Great News: BIG TEN FOOTBALL IS BACK,” Trump tweeted shortly after the conference’s announcement. “All teams to participate. Thank you to the players, coaches, parents, and all school representatives. Have a FANTASTIC SEASON! It is my great honor to have helped!!”
The keen interest of Trump in this matter is not surprising given several states in the Big Ten’s geographic footprint are crucial swing states in the upcoming US Presidential election, including Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
In addition to Trump, Warren and the Big Ten faced widespread pressure from coaches, players, parents, and numerous other figures, as well as a legal challenge from Nebraska players.
“We’re in a better place, regardless of how we got here or how painful it was during the time we waited to get to this moment, said Gene Smith, athletic director for Ohio State, which had seen its head coach Ryan Day openly criticizing the Big Ten’s communication surrounding the prior cancellation of play. “That’s all behind us. What’s beautiful is that we have a process and protocols in place that’s based on science and based on lessons learned since August 11.”
Warren, for his part, sought to take the heavy criticism directed toward him in recent weeks in stride.
“We have passionate athlete. We have passionate athletes. And we have passionate fans,” Warren said. “So I take that from a positive standpoint.”
The Pac-12, meanwhile, remains on hiatus, with not only state guidelines related to Covid-19 preventing a return, but also growing issues with wildfires across much of that conference’s footprint.
“At this time, our universities in California and Oregon do not have approval from state or local public health officials to start contact practice,” said Larry Scott, Pac-12 commissioner. “We are hopeful that our new daily testing capability can help satisfy public health official approvals in California and Oregon to begin contact practice and competition.
“We are equally closely monitoring the devastating fires and air quality in our region at this time. We are eager for our student-athletes to have the opportunity to play this season, as soon as it can be done safely in accordance with public health authority approvals,” Scott said.