The Big Ten can stop fighting itself now, right?
Can we get a peace sign out of the folks in Columbus? A white flag from Lincoln? Some happiness from Happy Valley? Can all the nice people who go to Iowa games get back to waving? Can the looney player parents who talked about going to Chicago to confront commissioner Kevin Warren at league HQ find something more important to protest?
Warren’s open letter Wednesday closes the book on fall football in America’s oldest and richest college athletic conference. The decision made last week—“a gut-wrenching decision,” Warren told Sports Illustrated—is not changing. Fall sports are not happening.
It sucks. It’s also a perfectly logical and defensible position to take, one that Warren very consistently stated all along could end up being the way it goes. It’s also a position shared by the Pac-12, the Mountain West, the Mid-American Conference and just about everyone at the FCS level of NCAA Division I athletics. That includes the Ivy League, which has a few smart people within its membership.
Six other leagues are still playing, as we all know, including three members of the Power 5: the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 conferences. That has made Warren’s stance tougher, with fans howling that the league is being left behind. (Which is ludicrous.) The fact that his son, Powers, is playing at SEC member school Mississippi State has also created a lot of noise.
“As a family, we’ve had many difficult discussions,” Warren said. “You don’t mix family issues with work issues.
“I have great respect for the other Power 5 conferences … but our focus is on the almost 10,000 student-athletes we have at 14 world-class institutions over 11 states. That is my focus.”
There is no guarantee that, in a week or two or three, those leagues still playing won’t end up where the Big Ten is today. If anything, news out of North Carolina and Notre Dame has thrown fresh doubt on whether anyone can pull this off. With campuses welcoming in the general student population, COVID-19 forest fires can erupt all over the place.
So it bears repeating that the Big Ten decision is not some irrational, outlier stance. It’s simply an unpopular decision, and the people who are performatively outraged over the process are actually just angry with the result. Warren acknowledged that he didn’t do a great job articulating the league’s reasoning last week, but ultimately he had the backing of the university presidents and the Big Ten medical advisory board.
“Even with all the criticism, we’re very comfortable with our decision,” Warren said. “We are working with student-athletes who are not professional, who are trying to get an education with participating in athletics, and they must be in a safe environment. Our first priority all along has been the health and safety of our athletes. You have to be willing, when you ask your medical experts for information and for their feedback for months, you have to listen to that.”
They listened. They made a decision. Turn your frown upside down and deal with it, Big Ten complainers.
You want a reason to move on from eight days of anger? Here’s one.
There could well be a winter season of Big Ten football coming, a development that multiple sources told SI is gaining momentum around the league. Indoor stadiums within the league’s sprawling geographic footprint could host doubleheader games, one source said, with multiple schools assigned to five or six “anchor” facilities.
The thinking is that playing in the winter, as opposed to spring, will keep a lot of NFL prospects in the college game and also avoid compromising the 2021 fall season. The idea has been well received by Big Ten TV partners, sources said.
Warren would not confirm that a winter football season is a leading option, but he did say that a task force assembled to plan what to do with displaced fall sports is in the works. “I think this is where you’ll see the Big Ten at its best,” he said, touting the creative clout of the people working on the project.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith hinted at just such a plan in a statement released Wednesday, noting “the possibility of bringing at least some of our fall sports back to practice and competition by the end of the year. We are actively planning for the winter and spring seasons for all sports, including the return of football.”
Here’s what else you need to know about Smith’s statement, and why it may signal that peace is not yet fully at hand in the Big Ten: It ran nearly 700 words, and none of them were “Kevin” or “Warren.”
This is what he said about the league: “As an athletics director at a Big Ten institution, I will always be respectful of our conference as it provides an outstanding platform for our student-athletes to pursue the championship experience.” As someone who has read approximately four million statements from college athletic officials, an athletic director wishing to make nice with the commissioner would have offered him a personal bon mot in that sentence. The absence of any such thing was notable.
Fact is, Smith has watched his star quarterback, Justin Fields, start an online petition to push the Big Ten to reverse his decision. Then he watched his football coach, Ryan Day, champion Fields’ petition on Twitter. Then Smith himself tweeted, “LOVE MY COACH!!!” That’s not exactly subtle messaging.
So we can continue to monitor the Ohio State–conference office relationship going forward. But the time for grandstanding protest of the Big Ten’s decision is over.
Not playing fall football should be about 29th on most people’s worry list right now, and if it’s any higher than that you might need to check yourself. Big Ten football will be back, perhaps as soon as early January. From Piscataway to Lincoln, that should make some crabby people happy.