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In Defense of the Big Ten

The league made the decision it thought was in the best interest of players, whether the players agree with that or not.

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Parents of Big Ten Football Players Protest Conference Decision to Postpone Football Season Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

We are all well aware by now that the Big Ten voted on August 10 to postpone all fall sports, and hopefully hold their seasons in the spring. What you are probably also aware of is the enormous backlash the league, and mostly Commissioner Kevin Warren, have faced from many politicians, talking heads, other power conferences, and even a few renegade fan bases within the conference itself.

It is about time the case is made for why the Big Ten was correct in their decision to postpone and why most of the backlash has been unfair and poorly covered by the media. Though I will add the caveat upfront that this is based on what is public knowledge as of late Monday night on Aug. 31, 2020, and I retain the right to change my mind should some magical phone transcript come out of various Big Ten top brass making crude jokes about how postponing the season would be a great way to piss off the Nebraska and Ohio State fan bases as a funny way to haze conference newcomer Kevin Warren.

First off, this is a “novel” virus. We clearly are still coming to terms with the lasting implications of it. Medical experts are still working on fully understanding how it spreads, what measures need be taken to stop or slow the spread without overly harmful repercussions elsewhere, finding drug treatments to better combat it in those infected, methods to most accurately test the population to see who is infected, and what long lasting health effects it has on those infected. Most everyone should be aware of this by Sept. 1 when this article will be published.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updates guidance regularly on COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the infection. Medical experts are constantly discovering potentially new implications for short-term and long-term effects of the disease. Some of these are based off of initial case studies that are awaiting closer peer-review to all ensure accuracy of findings. This is how the scientific method works in real life, and it is not an overnight process. It causes much confusion for the rest of us as we deal with guidance such as “do not wear masks” that then turn into “wear your mask, even outdoors.” It is hard for everyday life, let alone those in charge of managing small cities that make up the campuses of the Big Ten conference.

On a more personal note, my husband works in higher ed administration. I have had a front row seat to the long hours he has had to put in trying to develop plans from CDC guidance and other medical advice to help do his part in making a semester happen for his school. Further, any developments announced in planning were widely panned by one side of the spectrum one week, then by the other side a week or two later when they had to reverse course on something after the latest guidance update. These are difficult times for everyone, and tempers are flared for a number of reasons related to the measures taken to combat this virus and the disease it causes. However, to my view this is a blaming the messenger argument that is equally applied to those in charge of the Big Ten conference.

To that end, let me lay out the points for why the Big Ten made the correct decision given the uncertainty of the disease beyond pointing out the obvious facts about the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. First of all is the decision announced back on July 9th by the Big Ten. The announcement already made clear there would only be fall sports in a conference-only schedule format:

if the Conference is able to participate in fall sports (men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, football, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball) based on medical advice, it will move to Conference-only schedules in those sports. (emphasis added)

Right off the bat the conference laid the ground rules that, based on medical advice, the conference believed it could only ensure a safe environment would be plausible if it limits fall sports to a conference-only format to ensure a number of factors ranging from frequency and accuracy of testing, limiting exposure to a smaller group of individuals, and other factors. To anyone wanting to know why schools aren’t allowed to “play on their own if they want to,” ignoring the absurdity of the fact the season was merely “postponed” and so to be in the conference you would be expected to play in the spring with everyone else, the fact is it flew in the face of exactly what the conference had already determined in early July regarding player safety. How that might reconcile with bowl games is a whole other matter open to question, I agree.

Now fast forward approximately one month, and the Big Ten finally releases its conference-only schedule. This came just five days after the SEC had announced a delayed start to their season and move to a conference schedule, along with leaks (probably by individuals such as Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos) claiming the Big Ten announcement was imminent. While I agree with criticism that the announcement was extremely odd, some of the stories were naively lacking full coverage, and elsewhere outright ignored the full statements given by the conference. Yes, I include my own piece on the announcement, as I merely shared the video on Kevin Warren’s appearance announcing the schedule, and did not expand further on his comments in the interview about the “day to day” approach to whether the season would be cancelled or postponed. For that matter, Commissioner Warren probably should have been more clear at the start of his own interview, and more repetitive throughout that the conference was dead serious it is a day to day approach on whether a decision to postpone or cancel may be made. It did not help matters that the morning of the release it was only announced with less than an hour’s notice. In the end, would any of it actually have made a difference in the overall criticism leveled at the conference for canceling? I think that answer seems to err on the side of “no.”

Now we skip ahead another week to Tuesday, August 11th when the conference pulled the plug on any fall sports occurring in the fall. Again, baffling leaks and heated attitudes made for a messy weekend of news leading up to the final announcement. While the Big Ten’s lack of clarity on announcing their decision was both frustrating and poorly managed, are any of the critics actually happy with the clear answers the conference has given since then? Has anyone actively sat down, read what was said, and responded to it with a level head? To be frank, I have not seen many who have.

I am not going to defend the conference’s poor communication of the decision to postpone. Even in a crisis, you should have a more clear message out of headquarters. The fact that the Big Ten took so long to finally issue an open letter from Commissioner Warren was a big factor in some of the negative messaging directed at them. Of course, even after the clarity, many people still are ignoring the reasons for the postponement and criticizing the overwhelmingly one-sided result (the 11-3 vote from presidents and chancellors was 79-percent in favor of postponing).

I won’t share the entire letter again here, but I did already cover it previously if you want to read it in its entirety. I want to highlight this particular point:

at the core of our decision was the knowledge that there was too much medical uncertainty and too many unknown health risks regarding SARS-CoV-2 infection and its impact on our student-athletes. (emphasis added)

What about that is unclear about the medical factors? The conference received input from multiple medical experts and determined in the end that it is unsafe for amateur, student-athletes to be exposed to the health risks potentially arising from COVID-19. The fact other conferences do not care for the safety of their student-athletes should, frankly, be a positive mark for the Big Ten, PAC-12, MAC, and other athletic conferences that have paused.

“Well, how are they less safe competing than when they attend class?” Michigan State moved to an entirely online semester before courses even began. Many other schools have hybrid class formats. There are also likely special accommodations for those at risk or concerned about risk. In the end, football at the FBS level is still an extra-curricular aspect of colleges and universities. Going to class to learn is supposed to be the entire point of college and for almost all student-athletes, that is in fact why they are there. The ongoing argument by many that the amateur model is outdated and wrong still remains a separate issue to the reality of college athletics format in the present. Competing in athletics outside of the classroom remains an increased risk. Now, why some Big Ten schools are allowing intramural sports, have at the hypocrisy argument by all means. That does not make their decision on varsity sports is wrong.

President Stanley, a former infectious disease researcher at Harvard and now the Michigan State President, offered one of the more detailed explanations behind the decision recently.

“We received a report — the commissioner really received the most detailed report — that came from the committee that had been established by the Big Ten to essentially assess the health and safety risks and protocols that we would use to try and play football and other fall sports this year. One (issue) was the concern about testing, the availability of rapid response testing. In other words, getting answers quickly to testing. Turnaround times were of concern, and then just the general concern about the positivity of athletes that had been tested. We saw that there had been positive tests for athletes, even when people knew potentially the risks, (and they) had been educated about the risks, and there was a concern there.

And then in addition, there certainly were concerns about what are the after effects (for) individuals who have COVID-19, the risk associated with that. There’s not a lot published on that. But there were preliminary things that were talked about that may be of concern. In the absence of clear, scientific, published data, I think those things certainly we were concerned about, but they weren’t the only thing we were concerned about. We really weighed every factor we could and came to the conclusion that it made more sense to not try and proceed forward at this time, but to wait, continue to learn more about what’s happening, understand more about some of these things we were uncertain about, and then be in a better position to think about what would happen in the spring.

His answer was, frankly, a lot of what was already covered by Commissioner Warren’s letter that everyone chose to seemingly ignore in their calls for access to the medical documentation. Everyone doing so seemingly ignores their clear point that the issue is the data is preliminary and concerning. For anyone who thinks we should just move forward with a delayed start while waiting like what the SEC/ACC/Big XII are doing, I would remind you of their problems with COVID outbreaks on their teams in relation to Indiana’s Brady Feeney. The fall practice schedule announced by the NCAA involves strict non-contact rules and is far different than normal fall camp. The fact is this is a novel virus, and the efforts at determining how to safely operate something as close to normal as possible to everyday life is an evolving process. It is difficult to have a perfect answer to it, but to be a backseat driver ignoring the nuanced details of what is actually being done and the reasons why those things are being done is ignorant and obnoxious.

What about a return of fall sports, whenever that does occur? Some of the factors that go into that decision were mentioned by President Stanley as well.

That’s where the testing becomes important. That’s where the rapid results from testing becomes important. That’s where the kind of test you’re using, the sensitivity and specificity of that test becomes important. And that’s where the frequency of testing becomes important as well. And these are challenges. And then, again, I think the other thing I think that’s a challenge, if you just think about these sports, does the demand of physical activity change risk if you do contract COVID-19, does that make a difference as well? These are the kinds of things I think you have to think about.

The most recent updates in testing, namely developments such as the FDA’s emergency approval for Abbott’s anti-gen test and promise for viable mass production, offers a key break through the conference said was needed to ensure a return for college football. Important here is the fact that the test is not only fast, affordable, and accurate, but that it will be readily available nationally by October. All of that is needed, and was not a guarantee at the time the conference called off a fall season. So when the conference does eventually make the call for when a season is safe to begin, bear in mind that the reasons behind that date selection are likely because the conference’s medical experts have concluded there is enough data available on the virus and the steps needed to protect athletes based on that data are satisfactory enough to meet the requirements the conference has explicitly stated are needed for sports to return.

So to summarize the point here, while the Big Ten did themselves no favors in delaying their messaging, the criticism behind their postponement decision is misguided. The conference did everything it could to try and hold a fall season, and in the end determined that it was not safe at this time. The Big Ten has clear benchmarks for what will change that determination, and are working toward plans for how a season will work when that does happen. Nobody is happy, even the people who had to make the decision. However, for all the veiled comments about not caring for athlete safety, the fact the Big Ten made a difficult decision with that in mind in this instance seems to be completely ignored. I for one am here to defend the point that the correct decision was made, and eagerly look forward to when I can watch my Michigan State Spartans return to the field.