The Big Ten Conference announced its revised 2020 football schedule Wednesday, then allowed teams to starting practicing on Friday. On Sunday, conference leaders held an emergency meeting. And now football season appears on the verge of being delayed until next spring.
Well, a lot.
The Mid-American Conference postponed fall sports. Several prominent Big Ten players opted out of the season, including Gophers All-America receiver Rashod Bateman, citing health concerns. The mother of an incoming Indiana football player posted on Facebook that he was admitted to the emergency room with breathing issues and is dealing with possible heart problems after testing positive.
College football appeared to be doomed just as it was getting started.
The response from inside the sport Monday was jarring, as well.
Players unified their voices in wanting to play and to unionize, led by the two most marquee names in college football, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State QB Justin Fields.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh released a statement with data highlighting the success of his team’s health protocols. Nebraska coach Scott Frost suggested that his team will look to play in a different conference if the Big Ten postpones the season.
Welcome to the job, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren.
The path forward has turned college football into chaos with no centralized leadership among Power Five conferences to guide the way. The current arrangement is five guys, five cabs.
None of the five wealthiest conferences wants to go first in issuing a thumbs up or thumbs down. Not the Big Ten. Not the Pac-12. Not the SEC, which will be the final domino to fall if football gets delayed to spring.
The forceful response by coaches and players felt like an impassioned last-ditch effort to save the season. Will it work? Seems doubtful, but maybe it will buy more time. Ultimately, conferences will take their cues from doctors and scientists, not coaches.
Leaders will be criticized no matter what they decide. Postponing football will cause severe financial implications that athletic directors have feared since the pandemic shut down sports in March. And in case you haven’t noticed, this country is sharply divided over scientific data and health risks to young people.
If leaders allow fall sports to carry on, they will be castigated for putting money over the health of athletes who are not being paid and have no representation. University leaders undoubtedly are nervous about liability, and one can imagine the blowback if an athlete becomes seriously ill, or worse, after testing positive on their campus.
The unknowns about long-term effects of COVID-19 might be the tipping point in this debate, the thing that leaders simply cannot resolve in giving their approval to play.
I have remained hopeful that football season is preserved, as long as strict testing protocols are met, that players don’t lose eligibility if they opt out and that conferences reserve the right to hit pause if testing results demand it. Some might consider that blind hope.
Truthfully, it’s hard to know what’s best. I’m sending a child back to college this week with some uneasiness about what lies ahead. I assume I would feel the same way if my child played football, but the risks cannot be ignored.
The tug-of-war conference commissioners are grappling with is daunting. Canceling a football season would change college athletics fundamentally. Olympic sports would be eliminated, and schools likely would need to secure loans to confront massive revenue loss.
In April, the Gophers athletic department estimated losing $75 million in revenue if the pandemic canceled sports through the fall season. The University of Wisconsin reported that it stands to lose more than $100 million without a football season.
That is why Power Five schools have clung to hope for as long as possible. Without football money, draconian measures will be necessary.
Schools have put myriad protocols in place to foster a safe environment. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck referred to the team’s own “synthetic bubble.” But with students returning to campus across the country this week, maintaining even a mini-bubble will be challenging.
Athletes and coaches involved in all fall sports deserve to know their fate. The past four days have been chaotic. Keeping everyone in limbo isn’t a plan.