Will the Big Ten Football Season Have COVID-19 Cancellations? ADs Are Assuming Answer Is Yes
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Big Ten Conference football fans shouldn’t assume the league’s 14 athletics directors believe they’re going to get all nine of its football games played this season.
Due to the rigorous and transparent coronavirus standards created by the league’s return to play medical task force, the leaders of Big Ten athletics departments are actually betting on the likelihood of a nine-game in nine-week schedule with no open dates and game cancellations being a low proposition.
“Certainly I think anybody who is paying attention to sports recognizes that there will be some challenges,” Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman said. “We recognize that. We certainly don’t want it, don’t welcome it but we recognize that as a possibility now that we have such a condensed schedule and we’re prepared to come to those eventualities should they come to pass.”
The Big Ten has committed to have all 14 football programs conduct daily testing of its players and what the league is calling the “community” around the players including coaches and staff members surrounding the team starting Sept. 30. The Big Ten was influenced by the Pac-12’s announcement to conduct daily testing as well, though the Pac-12 has yet to reverse its decision to postpone a fall football 2020 season due to state governments in its league footprint restricting the amount in a public gathering to allow for practice and competition.
Since the start of the 2020 season, 21 games involving Football Bowl Subdivision teams have either been postponed or cancelled due to concerns over coronavirus positive tests, including this weekend’s newest Atlantic Coast Conference game postponement of Notre Dame at Wake Forest.
In his Sept. 10 post on social media, which was promoted by the Ohio State athletics department, Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day used the line: “Duke is playing Notre Dame and Clemson is playing Wake Forest this weekend. Our players want to know: why can’t they play?” Two of the schools referenced in Day’s letter are now being forced to postpone a game this weekend.
The Big Ten has required that their teams use rapid antigen tests and report their daily results to the league through an appointed 'Chief Infection Officer.' Whitman told local and statewide media last week that the conference will also have a real-time updated digital scoreboard system online to track the number of positive tests of all 14 schools throughout this 2020 season.
According to the league release, the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors also "adopted significant medical protocols including daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and an enhanced data-driven approach when making decisions about practice/competition".
“Everyone associated with the Big Ten should be very proud of the groundbreaking steps that are now being taken to better protect the health and safety of the student-athletes and surrounding communities,” Dr. Jim Borchers, head team physician at Ohio State University and co-chair of the Return to Competition Task Force medical subcommittee said in the league media release. "The data we are going to collect from testing and the cardiac registry will provide major contributions for all 14 Big Ten institutions as they study COVID-19 and attempt to mitigate the spread of the disease among wider communities.”
Borchers and Penn State athletics director Sandy Barbour served as medical co-chairs on the Big Ten Return to Competition Task Force.
In addition to the medical protocols approved, the 14 Big Ten institutions will establish a cardiac registry in an effort to examine the effects on COVID-19 positive college athletes. The registry and associated data will attempt to answer many of the unknowns regarding the cardiac manifestations in COVID-19 positive elite athletes.
"Our focus with the Task Force over the last six weeks was to ensure the health and safety of our student-athletes. Our goal has always been to return to competition so all student-athletes can realize their dream of competing in the sports they love,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said in the media release. “We are incredibly grateful for the collaborative work that our Return to Competition Task Force have accomplished to ensure the health, safety and wellness of student-athletes, coaches and administrators.”
What the league doesn’t obviously have in this nine-games-in-nine-weeks schedule is flexibility for games to be postponed and played at a later date. Due to the late fall start, the Big Ten doesn’t have open dates.
Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez, who was the football scheduling chair of the conference’s return-to-competition task force, said during a news conference last week that a schedule format with a start date of Oct. 17 open date was presented as an alternative but the COP/C decided starting one week later without an open date was more optimal.
“As we go into it, we know (in the Big Ten), you’re going to see more cancellations than postponements because we don’t have a lot of wiggle room on the schedule,” Whitman said.
Therefore, any game that falls in the “red” category of the COVID-19 protocol of either having two teams having rosters of more than five percent positive cases or more than 7.5% of team population (players, coaches, staff members etc.) will need to be canceled.
“If a team is unable to play it will not be a forfeit, it will just be a non-game,” Barbour said. “We’re going to put together a nine game schedule, but we don’t know how many of those games will get played.”