The 2021 Big Ten Football Media Days kick off tomorrow in Indianapolis. There are numerous topics of importance that need to be addressed by league officials and coaching staff over the next two days, as always. However, while the event may have been canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19, the novel coronavirus continues to have an overbearing impact on the sports landscape as we near the start of the 2021 season.
Namely, the question lingering over the sport is what to do about COVID-19 vaccines, testing, and game scheduling should outbreaks of the virus among teams occur again this fall like in 2020. The goal of all should probably be to avoid the fate of North Carolina State baseball, as the Wolfpack — through nobody else’s fault but their own — was forced to forfeit the team’s final game of the College World Series to Vanderbilt due to outbreaks of COVID-19 among unvaccinated players.
NC State did not require traveling players to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and some players did not as a result. That meant they were subject to COVID-19 testing parameters, just like during most of the 2020-2021 college sports year saw. A few players ended up testing positive for COVID-19 among those who were unvaccinated (some possibly symptomatic even before arriving in Omaha, Nebraska), and that then caused vaccinated players to be tested, per NCAA rules established back in April of this year. Ensuing positive test results among some in that group of vaccinated players resulted in too many players not being eligible to compete, and the team eventually forfeiting its final game and being sent home. All of that to say, the players could have gotten a COVID-19 vaccine (barring religious or medical reasons) and avoided the ensuing testing requirements altogether.
However, are Big Ten programs going to require student-athletes to be vaccinated against COVID-19? With that in mind, I took a look at the public statements to that effect among the various members of the league as to student requirements for the vaccine. Keep in mind that I was not able to find definitive statements suggesting that student-athletes may separately be required to become fully vaccinated compared the general student population. However, that could easily be justified by schools due to certain higher risk categories because of the required travel that comes along with being a student-athlete, so it is hardly implausible that may end up the case. With that said, here are the results of my survey of school websites.
Schools Requiring Vaccine:
*Michigan is requiring all students living on campus and all student-athletes to be vaccinated, but not all students.
Schools “Strongly Encouraging” (but not requiring) Vaccine:
That is a lot of schools in the league with big question marks over how they plan to handle vaccinations and COVID-19 testing requirements heading into the season. Using Michigan State as an example, President Samuel L. Stanley announced in late June that the university was lifting its COVID-19 mandates, and while it is encouraged, is not requiring students to get vaccinated. Expect Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren to have that very subject at the top of his list in his opening remarks tomorrow morning when he kicks off the Big Ten Media Days event.
What might we possibly expect Warren to say regarding some of these issues? The SEC and Big 12 offer some helpful suggestions of what one might expect of the Big Ten as well. Namely, the two leagues have made clear that punishment for outbreaks among teams will be harsh this year if they choose not to require full vaccination among players and staff and end up experiencing an outbreak in ensuing testing requirements.
The Big 12 has not yet formally enacted that rule, but made clear last week at its Media Days that teams that cannot play a game as scheduled due to COVID-19 should expect taking a forfeit as a result. However, the league states it does not have the authority to require student-athletes to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey drove an even harder line in his tone during SEC Football Media Days on Monday of this week, though making clear it is up to schools on vaccination requirements or encouragement for student-athletes. Sankey outlined SEC rules that allow programs to stop testing players for COVID-19 once 85-percent of the roster has reached the fully vaccinated status. In addition, players no longer need to wear masks inside team facilities. Just six of the 14 teams in the SEC have reached 80-percent vaccination rates to date. Sankey similarly made clear teams should expect having to forfeit a scheduled game should COVID-19 result in not being able to play a game as originally scheduled.
Will the Big Ten follow suit in hard lines on vaccination talk? Does the league believe it has the authority to enforce vaccination of student-athletes across the board, unlike the Big 12? Will teams have to forfeit if they fail to be medically able to compete as scheduled? Expect these questions to be front and center tomorrow morning when Commissioner Warren steps up to the microphone.