My Two Cents: We Can See Starting Gate Now, But Finish Line Still a Long Way Off

Tom Brew

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The good news kept coming all morning on Wednesday. Big Ten football was back, baby, and everybody was doing that little dance. One tweet after another kept bringing smiles to football faces all across the Midwest.

We can see the starting gate now, and football will return the weekend of Oct. 23-24, with Indiana and its Big Ten brethren getting ready to play nine games this fall after all. It's a complete 180 for the league's presidents to move forward just a month after saying it was unsafe to play football during this ongoing — and still very real — COVID-19 pandemic. 

So we can start, but can we finish? It's still a very big concern.

Before I dive into this, let's put one thing to rest immediately. Every time I write something about COVID-19 and its impact on our college teams and players, I get this ridiculous backlash that I'm part of the liberal media that hopes college sports get blown up and that we shouldn't be playing. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

When you get to know coaches who work night and day to do their job well, you want to see them work. I sure do. And when you see all these players putting in the work, you want them to be out there, too.

I am absolutely 100 percent thrilled that Indiana and the Big Ten is going to play again. I'm excited for late October to get here as fast as it can. I want a full football season for a lot of reasons, including some of my own. 

But we need to stay realistic about some of this. 

The only reason Big Ten football is going forward is because the presidents and chancellors have agreed to very strict medical protocols to keep people safe. The league is footing the bill for daily testing, which helps from an information standpoint and the ability to control what's going on with these players. If someone does get sick, the school is going to know it immediately and that player can be isolated and/or quarantined.

But in part of that language is a big bomb that could easily blow up a team's season. Or several teams' seasons. Included in the new language is a requirement that if someone tests positive, they will have to sit out a minimum of 21 days before they can return to action, 14 days of quarantine and seven days of further evaluation, especially in regards to heart-related issues.

That's three games in what is already a condensed season, with a very late start and no bye weeks. There is, quite literally, no margin for error.

What happens if, say, the linebackers room at Indiana gets hit with positive COVID test results, and several of them have to sit out for three weeks? Or the wide receivers room at Michigan? Or, God forbid, the quarterback room at Ohio State, the one school in the league who has pushed hardest for a re-start because the Buckeyes think they can win a national championship this fall behind quarterback Justin Fields?

All of that is very, very real.

Other conferences turned their backs on the Big Ten and Pac-12 when they announced a move to the spring back in August. The other Power 5 conferences, the SEC, ACC and Big 12, were moving forward, along with a few of the Group of 5 leagues.

And in the first two weeks of the season, there already have been a dozen games postponed or canceled because of COVID.

Who's to say that can't happen in the Big Ten as well?

The league's decision to play a conference-only schedule means that all 14 schools are following the same protocols. That's fine, but this virus knows no boundaries. We've seen issues already at the majority of Big Ten schools. Indiana itself has had to pause workouts for some of its teams on multiple occasions already.

Can they really pause again once the season starts?

If the league is going to play 63 games from Oct. 23 to Dec. 19, I'll be stunned if all 63 get played. I'm having a hard time believing that everyone can avoid an outbreak. Maybe they can, but kids will still be kids. They are surrounded by 40,000 other students in a lot of cases.

From what I've been told behind the scenes, Indiana's players have bought in completely to trying to do everything right. But the numbers are still out there, and there are still dozens of positive tests on campus every day,

I'm not trying to be too negative here, but there's still just so much of an unknown out there. I get encouraged when I see the NFL do 5,000 tests a week and have zero positive results. That happened last week. Hopefully it'll happen again this week, too. And the week after  that. 

One of the best things about daily testing is that it puts the players, coaches and staff completely on the hook to take care of themselves, or everyone else will know about it. Their teammates are relying on them – every single day,.

So here's to late October getting here and games get played. Then let's do it  the week after that, and the week after that, too. I am all for playing a season with no fans, to simply take that risk out of the equation.

So let's start. And mostly, let's get to the finish. I want that so bad, for everyone involved.