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Wojo: Big Ten football in trouble if other conferences play on

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

They said it’s all about player safety, about science and uncertainty and the medical experts’ recommendations. Big Ten leaders climbed to the highest moral ground when they postponed football and all fall sports in the hope of playing in the spring, and it indeed might prove to be the right thing to do.

But was it done for the right reasons at the right time? It’s generally foolish to argue against science and safety during a pandemic, except this is about more than that. This is a power play lacking transparency and any semblance of a real plan. It’s good to have a healthy fear of COVID-19, but this also is fear of liability and fear of losing status in the academic hierarchy.

Jim Harbaugh

The Big Ten made the unilateral, even arrogant, decision to halt fall football before any other conference, a mere six days after it unveiled its schedule. The presidents and chancellors, and commissioner Kevin Warren, ditched their measured approach and basically blindsided their members without sufficiently answering two little questions: Why now? What now?

What if three other Power 5 conferences — SEC, ACC, Big-12 — don’t follow the lead of the Big Ten and Pac-12? I honestly don’t think the Big Ten believes that’s possible, but those conferences are pushing ahead, at least for now. If they play this fall and pull it off safely, the Big Ten will be severely damaged, financially and competitively, in recruiting and exposure.

There’s no unity, little cooperation and little coherent communication in college football. (Huh, sounds like a country we know). The 10 conferences operate on their own terms with their own agendas, and NCAA president Mark Emmert buys his clothes from the Empty Suit Wearhouse.

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That’s why many in the Big Ten, from coaches to athletic directors to student-athletes, are furious. So are some parents, who considered their kids safe. I get the frustration. This is devastating, a historic event that could forever damage one of America’s great pastimes. Programs have tried to do the right things, and the majority were following the strictest protocols. When there were breaches or outbreaks of the virus, they were handled and workouts resumed.

Michigan football’s last 353 COVID-19 tests were negative. And yet without warning from president Mark Schlissel, and no discussion with Warren, it was over. What happened to the flexibility woven into the schedule that could push the start to Sept. 26 or later? There was time for more educating, more testing, more incentive for athletes to follow the rules. The timing was suspicious, even capricious, leaving coaches and athletes feeling ignored.

It was so clumsy, the Big Ten wouldn’t say whether the 14-school vote was unanimous (clearly, it wasn’t). Jim Harbaugh, Ohio State’s Ryan Day and others expressed supreme disappointment. Players took to social media to rail at the presidents. Nebraska took it one dopey step farther with Scott Frost suggesting the Cornhuskers might play somewhere else this fall, which has no chance of happening.  

The high-minded types will click their tongues and say, “Oh please, it’s only a game.” Then can athletes click their tongues and say, “Oh please, it’s only a semester, why are you bringing thousands of students back to campus?” I understand football presents more dangers than a half-filled classroom. But it doesn’t present more dangers than a half-filled bar or a fully filled house party. Don’t tell the players it’s “only” their athletic and academic futures at stake. Don’t tell that to the people who make their livelihoods off sports.

This is a battle that never had to happen, pitting academia against athletics, and it mirrors our sadly fractured nation. In the absence of real leadership – from the top down – many people draw their opinions directly from Facebook, or Twitter, or Uncle Eddie who found a medical study that no one else is talking about.

The White House was ridiculously late to push for social-distancing and mask-wearing. Many citizens were too selfish to accept guidelines. Many young people were too clueless to recognize they probably shouldn’t flood the bars and beaches, and they aren’t immune.

Because so much has gone wrong during the pandemic, nobody trusts anybody, and you can’t ignore the role of politics in this. It’s a different climate, in a lot of ways, down South, where they plan to play.

I do trust the Big Ten presidents have players’ health interests in mind. They also have the universities’ legal interests in mind. Schools couldn’t ask amateur athletes to waive their rights to litigate if they got sick. In a way, the “We Are United” movement – largely involving players from the Big Ten and Pac-12 — may have forced a quicker decision. Players demanded stricter testing guidelines and fairer treatment, and threatened boycotts. By the time others spoke out about their desire to play, it was too late.

Ryan Day

If this was just about safety, could the Big Ten truly justify holding a spring season and returning again in the fall? Not many coaches or health experts think it’s prudent to ask college athletes to play upwards of 20 football games in a year.

Former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer put it bluntly: “No chance. I don’t see that happening. In my very strong opinion, the body is not made to play two seasons in one calendar year.”

There’s no guarantee the Big Ten will even try. But it has to keep hopes up, especially if the SEC and others play. At least the conference was wise enough to allow players to continue using training facilities. It never made a lick of sense to assume they’d be safer outside of the program structure. As for the concern that the risk grows when students return to campus, that’s a sketchy assumption. Many students will stay home and opt for online classes, and the lure of bars and parties is just as strong in the summer, and athletes seem to be handling it.

Again, you can dismiss these arguments and simply say you can’t play football in a pandemic. Hard to push against that. But don’t downplay the detrimental effects, the loss of revenue, the disbanding of minor sports, the growing competitive imbalance between the SEC and the Big Ten. If the SEC plays — again, big IF — it absolutely will affect recruiting, as if that disparity couldn’t get any larger.

Scholarship limits will have to be radically adjusted and eligibility rules will be confusing, although I doubt there’d be a flood of transfers. But more top players likely would opt out of a spring season to avoid injury just a few weeks before the NFL draft. And please, don’t act like football isn’t important to many. I don’t see any 100,000-seat classrooms in Ann Arbor or Columbus.  

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 Warren tried his best to sound calm in the face of unprecedented tumult.

“This doesn’t mean we’re giving up forever,” Warren said. “We’re going to continually have to gather information, there’s just so much uncertainty. The questions we asked two weeks ago were answered, but then new questions arise.”

One of the new questions came from the Big Ten’s and Pac-12’s medical advisory committees, which pointed to troubling — although still scant — data that COVID-19 can lead to heart problems. Meanwhile, the ACC, SEC and Big-12 are unfazed by the Big Ten’s quick reversal. It’d be nice if these conferences would share what they know, or think they know, wouldn’t it?

 SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said he looked forward to hearing what went into the Big Ten’s thinking. Duke infectious disease expert Dr. Cameron Wolfe, chairman of the ACC medical advisory group, reportedly told Sports Business Daily that he believed the fall season could be conducted safely.

There’s that gap nobody seems capable of closing, between science and safety, risk and reward, agendas and concerns. Without a unified plan, everybody loses. If the SEC, ACC and Big-12 successfully play, the Big Ten and Pac-12 lose. If fall football fails, everybody loses again.

It’s a divide too wide, maybe impossible to cross as long as the virus haunts us. These conferences include some of the finest universities and smartest people in the world, and yet during this crisis, there’s still no evidence anyone knows what to do.