The once-unified Big Ten Conference is now in a state of upheaval. Players are mad. Parents of players are mad. Coaches are mad. Fans are really mad. This is like Thanksgiving dinner with relatives screaming “You’re an idiot” at each other.
There is no Switzerland neutrality on the question of whether Commissioner Kevin Warren and leaders of 14 member schools made the right decision in postponing football to spring.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, one of college football’s most prominent players, created an online petition this week requesting the Big Ten to reinstate the fall season. His petition had received nearly 285,000 signatures.
That figure could reach a million and it will not change the outcome, which Warren made clear in a damage-control letter released Wednesday, saying the decision “will not be revisited.”
Nor should it. The Big Ten made the right call, even if the process in arriving at that decision was so confusing and poorly communicated by Warren that intense blowback was inevitable. Conference leaders can’t even agree on whether a vote was taken to postpone the season.
I wanted the Big Ten to give football a chance, at least try to see if all the testing and safety protocols might work well enough to salvage the season. After thinking about it more, I would have made the same decision as the league.
Why? First, there are still too many unknown health dangers with COVID-19. Second, these players are unpaid amateurs, not professionals and certainly not guinea pigs.
Common retorts are that even doctors can’t find agreement on science and health risks, and that medical experts of three other Power Five conferences see a safe path to play. That discrepancy of medical opinion is precisely the point. Who is right?
New reports about COVID-related myocarditis and potential long-term effects of that heart condition would alarm me if I were in a position of authority, and that gets to the crux of this matter besides health concerns: liability. University presidents would land in legal hot water if an athlete suffered a serious illness, or worse. They know it.
U President Joan Gabel, a lawyer, said last week that liability concerns never came up in discussions with Warren and Big Ten leaders, but you can bet the mortgage that each school had private counsel with their own lawyers on that subject.
The rate of death or serious illness from COVID-19 among young, healthy people remains infinitesimal, but if one outlier case happened to an athlete on campus, a lawsuit would be filed before sundown.
Here is what high-profile college sports lawyer Tom Mars told Sports Illustrated last week: “Whatever conference(s) decides to play football this fall will be taking a ridiculously high risk they may soon regret. I know and have talked with some of the best plaintiff’s lawyers in the country this week, and they’re praying the SEC, Big 12 and/or the ACC are greedy enough to stay the course. These are lawyers who’ve already slain bigger dragons than the SEC, and they can afford to finance the most expensive litigation on the planet. As a coalition, they’d be the legal equivalent of the Death Star.”
Would you take that gamble?
Some schools initially required athletes to sign waivers acknowledging risks upon returning to campus this summer, which stirred debate as to whether that constituted liability protection. The NCAA later banned waivers with President Mark Emmert calling them “inappropriate.” But now those pushing for the season to be reinstated want players to have the choice of signing liability waivers as a way to opt-in.
If schools OK’d that idea, they essentially would be admitting that they put liability fears ahead of the health of athletes. Waivers would create even more chaos. What if only 40 players on a team signed them? What if only five teams in a conference had enough players opt-in? This is not the way forward.
Frustration over the handling of this process is understandable. People have been living in limbo since March.
The Big Ten gave everyone hope — false hope as it turns out — by releasing a football schedule and allowing teams to start practicing under detailed health and testing protocols, only to shift abruptly six days later.
The fact that Warren initially offered vague corporate soundbites and not specific answers about what changed in that short span added to the confusion that quickly turned to anger. Warren provided more detail and insight in his letter, but that will probably do little to appease those angered by this decision.
Warren’s communication whiff shouldn’t obscure the overarching point, though. The uncertainty with health risks made postponement the safest choice, a decision that will cost individual athletic department tens of millions in lost revenue.
This was a last resort, an outcome nobody wanted. But without more firm answers and assurances from medical experts, I don’t fault the league for choosing this path.