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Big Ten calls an audible, will play fall football after unanimous approval

There will be no fans, there will be fewer games. And the rest of fall sports remain on hold.

But Big Ten football, at least, is back.

The conference, which had been the first of the Power Five conferences to postpone fall sports, called an audible Wednesday, reinstating the football season after weeks of public pressure, including protests, petitions, threats of lawsuits and even presidential tweets. 

The Michigan and Michigan State football teams will kick off their seasons next month.

But the decision, which was approved unanimously by the 14 Big Ten presidents and chancellors, almost entirely came down to medical advancements, particularly the emergence of rapid and reliable COVID-19 testing. All Big Ten football players will be tested daily, starting Sept. 30, and any player who tests positive will sit out for at least 21 days, and even then can only return pending the approval of a cardiologist.

"It really is a blessing to be here today," Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren told reporters on Wednesday, interestingly the one-year anniversary of his first day on the job. "We will put the health and safety of our student athletes first and foremost, and I'm proud to sit here today and say we did that."

The football season will begin the weekend of Oct. 23-24, and will feature an eight-game conference-only, regular-season schedule, played without byes. There also will be a bonus ninth game, pitting the same seeds from both divisions against each other aligning with the weekend of the Big Ten's Dec. 19 championship game. The College Football Playoff reveals its four-team field Dec. 20. With Wednesday's Big Ten announcement, Ohio State is expected to jump immediately into the top five in the polls.

The conference's 14 presidents and chancellors met for several hours Sunday, digesting detailed medical data presented by the conference's team of experts. Fans waited anxiously for an announcement which was expected Monday, and then hinted at Tuesday by Nebraska president Ted Carter, caught on a hot mic. Finally, the word came down Wednesday.

"Earlier I expressed my concern, shared by my fellow Big Ten presidents and chancellors, that we just didn’t know enough about the health and safety concerns unique to intercollegiate athletics to move forward with practices and competition," Michigan president Mark Schlissel, who's facing heat in Ann Arbor for how he's handled the campus' re-opening, with graduate employees currently on strike, said in a statement.

"As has been so true during this pandemic, we continue to learn more every day and we have adjusted our approach based on the new information that was developed.

"To our millions of fans worldwide, I again thank you for your understanding and your patience. Your support of our teams and our student-athletes is inspiring. Go Blue!"

Michigan State president Samuel L. Stanley, who like Schlissel is a doctor with a background in infectious diseases, also released a statement Wednesday.

Michigan State is doing remote-learning this semester, and students who are on or around campus have been ordered to quarantine for two weeks amid a major outbreak in Ingham County.

“I support this decision to allow a modified fall football season," Stanley said in a statement. "With all that we’ve learned in the past month about rapid response testing, and from other athletic leagues both professional and collegiate, I feel more confident that we can collectively play football while still keeping our student athletes, coaches and staff safe. MSU will adhere to the regulations put forth by the Big Ten Conference to move forward in a safe and thoughtful manner.”

The Big Ten, criticized roundly back in early August for not being transparent with its data when it decided to postpone, was overly thorough in laying out the regulations for a return to play.

According to the Big Ten, each university will have a chief infection officer who will collect and report the COVID-19 data. Teams with 0 to 2% positive rate can continue to practice; teams will 2 to 5% positive rate can proceed with caution while altering practice and meeting schedules; and teams with more than a 5% positive rate must immediately halt practice and competition for at least seven days.

If the positive rate is more than 7.5% for the general student population, the team also must shut down.

All athletes who test positive will undergo heart screenings, and must receive clearance from a cardiologist before returning. An athlete who tests positive will sit out a minimum of 21 days, or nearly 40% of the season.

"It's gonna be incumbent upon all of us, from our institutions — coaches and medical staffs — to make certain that health and safety is at the forefront of what we're doing," said James Borchers, Ohio State's team physician who also was part of the executive committee for the Big Ten's Return to Competition task force. "And we think and our medical subcommittee recommended that it was safe to proceed forward. And if we need to adjust, we'll adjust."

The Big Ten will be the fourth Power Five conference to play. The ACC and Big 12 returned to action last week, and the SEC starts later this month.

Already, there have been more than a dozen game postponements because of COVID-19 outbreaks — and it's worth noting, more than half of the Big Ten schools have had shutdowns of some degree in the last few months, including Michigan State. Wisconsin's athletics remain shut down. Iowa just returned.

The fifth Power Five conference, the Pac-12, said Wednesday it still doesn't plan to play anytime soon, given  the raging wildfires in California, Washington and Oregon. Governors in California and Oregon, however, did say they would ease state restrictions and allow practice and games.

The Mid-American Conference, operating a wildly different financial scale than the Big Ten, reiterated Wednesday it has no plans to play in the fall, and is focusing on a spring football season.

Previously, the Big Ten had scrapped the season Aug. 11, just days after releasing a 10-game, conference-only schedule, saying its presidents and chancellors had voted 11-3 to postpone the season amid the COVID-19 pandemic — though at least three presidents called it more a consensus than a traditional vote. Since the announcement on Aug. 11, the Big Ten and commissioner Kevin Warren have been bombarded with letters from parents, petitions from players, protests and even tweets from President Trump, urging presidents and chancellors to reconsider. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State coach Ryan Day have been on the same team, for once, publicly calling into question the conference's initial decision.

"Stay positive. Test negative," Harbaugh said in a statement Wednesday. "Let's play football."

Said Day, in a statement: "I am thrilled our fans will get a chance to see what I see every day, a team that will represent them on and off the field in the best way possible.”

It was Day's quarterback, Justin Fields, who started a #WeWantToPlay petition last month, garnering more than 300,000 signatures. But he also lost a star player, cornerback Shaun Wade, who opted out of the season. On Wednesday, Michigan quarterback Dylan McCaffrey also opted out. The parents of Wade and McCaffrey, interestingly, were some of the most outspoken about the Big Ten football season being reinstated. Michigan State also had a player opt back in, linebacker Marcel Lewis, while Ohio State All-America offensive lineman Wyatt Davis also opted back in.

Last week, attorneys generals from Ohio and Nebraska raised the possibility of legal action if the Big Ten didn't reconsider — threats that, now, are moot. Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa were the three schools that were in the minority, wanting to play, ahead of the previous announcement. Many Big Ten schools, including Michigan and Ohio State, have said they stood to lose $100 million or more in revenues if there was no football season. Michigan State put its estimated losses at around $85 million. Both Michigan and Michigan State had recently cut staff. Combined, Michigan and Michigan State still will lose tens of millions in ticket revenue, with no fans allowed besides family members.

More: Trump, testing and tempers: How the Big Ten dumped football this fall

Warren had consistently said the league would be willing to adapt to new scientific data. The emergence of rapid, reliable testing was a significant boon for the restart. The White House, in a phone call between Trump and Warren, offered to help supply rapid tests to the Big Ten schools — though the Big Ten is securing its own tests, preferring to keep the optics of politics out of the equation, especially in an election year.

"We thought it was important from a conference standpoint that we will be responsible for the structure of the agreements for our testing," said Warren, "and also for the payment for the testing."

That didn't stop Trump from taking a victory lap on Twitter on Wednesday. The White House said it had hundreds of phone calls between officials and Big Ten representatives, and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany opened her Wednesday press briefing celebrating the Big Ten's announcement.

"It is my great honor to have helped!!!" Trump tweeted.

Still, Wednesday's announcement comes as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a major concern on many campuses.

On Saturday, Ingham County health officials strongly recommended all Michigan State students quarantine for two weeks amid a major outbreak. Late last week, Wisconsin shut down football and hockey workouts for two weeks, and went to remote learning for at least two weeks. Iowa just recently restarted practice after a two-week shutdown. Previously, Michigan State, Maryland, Indiana, Ohio State and Rutgers have had shutdowns, and Michigan has, too, for sports other than football.

"I think everyone of us is interested in football, everyone of us is tired of COVID-19, I am, too," Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday. "This has been a tough time, there's no question, and I want to resume some activities that I would ordinarily be doing in the fall, like going to a football game.

"We're all trying to do what we can to engage in some normalcy, and keep people safe, and there's not a perfect way to do this."

Still, Whitmer said she supported the Big Ten's decision, just as she said she supported the initial decision to postpone. She said she has had nothing to do with the decision, despite Trump's tweets last week that governors from Michigan, Illinois and Maryland were holding up Big Ten football.

With the Big Ten returning, Michigan now has all levels of football. The Lions opened Sunday at Ford Field, and high-school football starts Thursday. The NFL is going fan-less; high schools have strict capacity caps.

Wednesday's Big Ten decision only brings back football. News on men's and women's cross country, field hockey, men's and women's soccer and women's volleyball will be announced shortly, the conference said.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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