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GOP legislators urge Big Ten to resume fall football

Michigan Republican legislative leaders joined chamber leaders from Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin Tuesday in a letter urging the Big Ten conference to reinstate the fall football season. 

The decision to postpone the football season until spring was the "wrong choice" for area universities and students, said House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who signed the letter with Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said. The Levering Republican is a former coach and athletic director at a private Christian school in northern Michigan.

Michigan Republican legislative leaders joined chamber leaders from Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin Tuesday in a letter urging the Big Ten conference to reinstate the fall football season.

"...I know how important sports can be to young people and their development," Chatfield said in a statement. "I also know how much support restarting football and other fall sports has among players, coaches, parents and the many people who have reached out to our offices demanding a change." 

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President Donald Trump indicated Sunday that the Big Ten is "looking really good" to return for the fall season, but said the conference "may lose Michigan, Illinois, and Maryland because of those Governors’ ridiculous lack of interest or political support. They will play without them?"

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer loosened restrictions last week on high school athletics, allowing high school football to proceed but with limited audience capacity. But her health department warned against contact sports because of the possibility the activity could spread the virus. 

University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh is one of several Big Ten coaches interested in restarting football this fall. 

Letter to Big Ten Commissioner Warren.pdf

In the Tuesday letter to Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren, Chatfield, Shirkey and the other legislative leaders noted the Big Ten athletic programs had successfully implemented health and safety protocol and proposed additional measures that should be given time to work. 

Student athletes "are losing a vital part of student life and are becoming less marketable to future employers with each passing week," the letter said. 

"Additionally, out local universities stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars that support vital student scholarships."

Warren announced Aug. 11 the postponement of fall sports because of lingering health and safety concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. The announcement came less than a week after he released a 10-game, conference-only football schedule.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 are the only two Power 5 conferences not playing football this fall, while the remaining three — the Southeastern Conference, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference — are continuing to prepare for the season.

On Aug. 19, Warren released an open letter saying the university presidents were “overwhelmingly in support” of the decision and said it would “not be revisited.”

But it has not quelled outside pressure on the Big Ten from parents to lawyers and, more recently, Trump and now these politicians to reverse the decision.

Parent groups from around the Big Ten, including Michigan, have sent letters to Warren demanding a reversal of the decision and transparency regarding what went into the call to postpone, and Randy Wade, father of Ohio State University player Shaun Wade, flew from Florida to lead a small protest outside the Big Ten headquarters. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields posted an online “#WeWanttoPlay” petition a few weeks ago that garnered more than 300,000 signatures, and noted attorney Tom Mars has increased the heat on the Big Ten by filing FOIA requests at the 13 public universities. 

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh joined parents and players last Saturday outside of the Michigan Stadium tunnel, the day they would have opened the season, in a “#WeWanttoPlay” protest organized by players’ parents.

“Would have rather been coming to a game than a rally, but it definitely hits you we should have been playing a game today,” Harbaugh said.

Michigan football has had rigid protocols for the players, who continue to go through voluntary practices four days a week. In August, there were 822 COVID-19 tests of the football players with zero positive results. Harbaugh said Saturday the most recent 120 tests returned all negative.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel reportedly was in favor of postponement. Harbaugh said he has not had a conversation with Schlissel and indicated athletic director Warde Manuel handles the communication. 

Harbaugh said he has texted and emailed Schlissel the team’s COVID-19 test results. 

“He’s aware,” Harbaugh said of the university president.

The players have been vigilant in terms of following protocols.

“Everybody’s realized how important it is,” Harbaugh said. “Collectively and individually, everybody’s taken upon themselves they want to be healthy and they want to be able to play. That’s the driving factor is you want to play.”

Meanwhile, teams like Michigan continue to go through voluntary practices four days a week in case the Big Ten decides to play. Harbaugh told his team last Wednesday there’s a chance they could play this fall.

“Sometime in October, early October, there’s a chance of that,” Harbaugh said. 

He said his team could be ready for a game after two weeks of practices in pads.

“Our position with the Big Ten to everybody has been, we want to play as soon as we possibly can, and we’re ready to play,” Harbaugh said. “We could be ready to play a game in two weeks. Just get the pads on. Our guys have trained without a pause since June 15. That’s our position. We’re ready to play as soon as we possibly can play.”

Chatfield on Monday criticized requirements that would mandate student athletes wear masks while participating in indoor or outdoor sports, a rule that will be implemented by the Michigan High School Athletic Association but mandated under Whitmer's Thursday executive order. 

"Let me be clear: this is absolutely crazy," Chatfield said in a Monday tweet. "Wild! Is this their own directive or an order form the Governor? I'd love to find out."

eleblanc@detroitnews.com