Big Ten presidents and regents overwhelmingly voted to cancel the football season on August 11. They consulted their medical advisors and decided that it was too risky for student-players and staff until 2021.
While the school administrations moved on to other issues, such as remote learning challenges and the skyrocketing number of COVID-19 cases on campus after students returned (click here for the latest campus numbers), the medical advisors continued their debate and searched for viable options for sports during the pandemic. It led to a major reversal where powerhouses like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State would play football starting on Saturday, October 24. Like major professional sports, there would be no fans in the stadium.
Too much money to ignore?
Players and coaches would rather be practicing and playing, though some clearly supported the season’s cancellation. But it became a hard pill to swallow when other conferences opted to play anyway. Perhaps this pressure was further added by politicians asking the schools to reconsider, or the outcry because some schools also discontinued second-tier or less popular sports that operated at a deficit (and were subsidized by football and basketball). Perhaps the loudest call came from the lucrative television contracts for playing on television in front of a captive audience.
Medical advisors reevaluate
The medical advisors determined that guaranteed daily testing of players and staff, as well as screening protocols, made football once again a viable and safe option. Conference medical staff claimed the change was to a better understanding of how to diagnose and treat the virus. So the decisionmakers reconsidered, and the conference announced its change of direction on September 16.
Thresholds for shutting it down
The league also announced protocols for addressing players who test positive:
- They would be barred from games for at least 21 days.
- Teams with a 5% or more positivity rate over seven consecutive days would need to shut down football activities for a week.
- Players who test positive would also need to pass various heart-related tests, including a cardiac MRI.
Many celebrated the controversial reversal, but it is worth noting that no other fall sport will restart. The NCAA also announced that Men’s and Women’s Division-1 basketball would start November 25, originally scheduled to begin November 10. Other NCAA sports have been pushed back for now.
Little is said about what will happen to the football players who become ill or die from the virus, and the viability of the revised plan seems questionable given the recent difficulties experienced by the NFL. The chances are that players are waiving protections as a requirement of playing, although the validity of those waivers is certain to be challenged. Moreover, the emphasis on the Big 10 and the NCAA’s most popular and lucrative sports further contradicts the student-athlete argument many trotted out before the NCAA and schools finally relented in allowing players to earn money.
To be clear, the schools claim it was the medical staff that came up with a solution, but there is still not a consensus among medical experts with no skin in the game. While the arguments will certainly continue over whether these decisions are primarily science or revenue driven, the starkly different “return to sport” decisions being made for revenue sports as compared to non-revenue sport is hard to ignore.