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The Big Ten Backtracks After a Month of Criticism and Confusion

The league reversed its decision to postpone its fall football season on Wednesday, raising the question of whether it listened to the right voices or the loudest ones

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When the Big Ten postponed its 2020 football season last month, all indications were that the league’s university presidents had relied mainly on expert medical advice. At the time, it seemed like once it made the unprecedented decision, other major college athletic conferences would shortly follow suit. The Big Ten has always held itself in high regard in relation to its peers—this is the conference that once named its divisions “Legends” and “Leaders” before switching to “East” and “West.” By becoming the first league to sacrifice hundreds of millions of dollars in television revenue to protect the health and safety of its student-athletes, it probably felt that it was finishing first in a race to achieve moral superiority.

But things did not go according to plan. Of the five major conferences, only the Pac-12 joined the Big Ten in calling off its 2020 fall sports season, including football. The ACC, Big 12, and SEC announced they would carry on with their seasons, even as some of their campuses became massive virus hotspots. And while these conferences received relatively little scrutiny for making a risky decision to play, the Big Ten was aggressively criticized, with the league’s head coaches, athletic directors, players, and their families, fans, and the president of the United States all demanding an explanation for why there would be no games this fall.

The league surprisingly found itself out on a limb, facing criticism from all angles. On Wednesday, it backtracked its decision in a new vote by Big Ten university presidents that gives the go-ahead to a 2020 football season starting in late October. The league cited increased access to rapid testing as the pivotal change and unveiled by far the strictest COVID guidelines of any conference. Games will be called off if over 5 percent of a team tests positive, a stark contrast to a Big 12 ruling stating that over half a team needs to be unavailable to justify calling off a game, and players will need to receive a sign-off from a cardiologist to return to play if they test positive. But at the same time, the conference’s announcement included the strange detail that it’s using its own players as part of a study on the long-term cardiological effects of COVID-19, a tacit acknowledgment that there are still many unknowns.

We are seven months into a pandemic that’s steadily killing a thousand Americans every day, and almost every American professional league has resumed play with almost no problems and relatively few infections. However, college campuses pose a far higher risk: The disease is spreading faster at some universities than just about any place on earth. At least a dozen separate power conference schools who are playing this fall have reported at least 1,000 cases on their campuses, including four in the Big Ten. This makes it essentially impossible to play a season without some players getting infected—and although young people are generally safe from the worst immediate outcomes of COVID-19, there are still significant risks. Several football players have been forced to skip the season due to heart problems developed after testing positive for the virus. Jamain Stephens, a Division II football player who returned to his campus for team workouts even though the school postponed its season, died of a blood clot in his heart after testing positive for COVID-19. Studies show that people who test positive for COVID are at risk to develop a rare heart condition called myocarditis after having the disease, although some experts claim this is neither surprising nor a reason to call off the season.

In the month since the Big Ten postponed its season, the leagues that resumed regularly scheduled activities saw a variety of worrisome outcomes. Seventy-five players on Texas Tech have been infected; LSU coach Ed Orgeron says “most” of his team has the virus; last week, Georgia Southern played a game without 33 of its players, although the school wouldn’t say how many had tested positive for COVID versus how many were merely under quarantine. So far, there have been 29 FBS games played, but 13 games have been postponed due to COVID outbreaks.

And yet, pressure mounted on the Big Ten to go forward with football. It started right after the league decided to postpone the season. Nebraska coach Scott Frost immediately announced his displeasure with the decision by saying the Huskers would look for other ways to play football outside of the conference in 2020. Their contract with the league prevented them from doing so, but other important Big Ten figures amplified Frost’s sentiments. Ohio State head coach Ryan Day demanded answers on why the league wasn’t playing; Penn State head coach James Franklin criticized the league’s communication; Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour questioned whether the league had ever actually held a vote to postpone rather than making a unilateral decision. (It was eventually announced that league presidents had voted 11-3 to postpone the season.) Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields started a “#WeWantToPlay” petition among Big Ten players. Parents of players took to the streets in protest, demanding their children have a chance to play—or at least answers about why the Big Ten had made its choices. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh joined parents at one of their rallies.

The discourse surrounding the Big Ten’s decision jumped out of the sports arena and into the hazardous fray of American politics. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden ran commercials showing Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s stadiums sitting empty to remind voters about the Trump administration’s disastrous handling of the pandemic. But President Trump also realized this was an issue he could mine. He demanded the league play games as part of his broader strategy of insisting American life should go on despite the virus and even spoke with Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren. After realizing that college football is a big deal in states that support him, the president has latched onto college football as a tool to connect with supporters, despite a documented history of caring about virtually every sport besides college football. His Twitter history includes many tweets about golf, the NFL, NBA, and MLB, but before his recent spate of Big Ten–related commentary, his only tweet about the Big Ten was noting that golfer Martin Kaymar had made a “big ten footer” at the Ryder Cup. (Trump recently failed to remember the name of Alabama coach Nick Saban, the most famous college football figure in the country and someone he has met with as part of his official duties.)

It feels noteworthy that almost none of the vehement criticism hoisted on the Big Ten was directed at the Pac-12. Perhaps it’s due to the league’s smaller fan bases; perhaps it’s due to the league’s less successful teams; perhaps it’s due to the relatively detailed medical justification the league released when announcing its postponement, a trove of information unmatched by the Big Ten. But in the case of presidential politics, it almost certainly feels like the reason the Big Ten has received more criticism than the Pac-12 is because its universities are in battleground states whose electoral votes may well decide the election. Trump has already taken credit for getting the Big Ten back on track; a Big Ten president says that Trump “did not impact the deliberations” and “no one wanted this to be political.”

Some of those screaming about the Big Ten are the same bad-faith barnacles that affix themselves to the latest divisive issue in American culture and make it their newest crusade. These people don’t actually give a damn about the health of Big Ten players or the economic well-being of Midwestern college towns, and there’s no way to please people who don’t truly care about the thing they’re screaming about. I don’t feel like there’s any explanation the Big Ten could have given to these people that would have gotten them to stop yelling.

But many of the people begging for answers really do have a massive personal investment in the Big Ten’s decision. By ignoring the trolls, the Big Ten also ignored the players, coaches, and fans who might have genuinely listened had the league provided evidence about why it wasn’t playing, or how it made its decisions. While some of these people may have also latched on to the next thing to criticize, I have to imagine that some parents would have been quieted by compelling medical evidence that the virus made playing football particularly unsafe for their children.

Given how much the Big Ten eroded public trust in its decision-making process over the past month, I’m skeptical that the league is making the right choice this time around. In some ways, the Big Ten has handled things appropriately: When announcing the decision to postpone the season, league officials erred on the side of caution in an uncertain situation, but were willing to change their mind when more information became available. That’s how things should be done. However, the league’s completely botched rollout of its initial decision—and its apparent desire to correct the PR disaster it created for itself—makes me wonder whether it’s listening to the right voices or the loudest ones.