Leistikow: The 'why now' of Big Ten's apparent fall shutdown more baffling than the 'what'
For months, we’ve discussed the viability of a fall college football season. Leaders have stressed patience and the need for flexibility.
So, what changed suddenly on a Sunday night (into a Monday morning) in early August?
According to multiple reports, including the USA TODAY Sports network of outlets, the Big Ten Conference was on the verge of announcing Tuesday that it was canceling its fall sports season because of coronavirus concerns.
Yet it was less than a week ago that the league was bullish in unveiling a 10-game, conference-only schedule, with action beginning Sept. 3.
Just this past Friday, Iowa announced plans to accommodate 10,000 to 15,000 fans in Kinnick Stadium for its newly scheduled Sept. 5 opener against Maryland. On Sunday, players went through their third practice of fall training camp.
But by 9:30 a.m. Monday, in an impromptu Zoom meeting with players called by Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, the conversation had changed. The day’s 11 a.m. practice was canceled, as the team awaited official word from the Big Ten office on next football steps.
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Pausing the season makes more sense than canceling it.
It’s understandable to have concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. Iowa, like others in the Big Ten, has been affected by positive tests. There are legitimate concerns not only about the virus itself but whether there is enough lead-up time to safely start a season Sept. 5, given the violent nature of football and the need to build a strength-and-conditioning base.
But the Big Ten built two open weeks into its 10-game schedule. Why not use those now and push back the season start date to Sept. 19? Or, to be more cautious yet, why not suggest an early-October start, with Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren saying that the league will try to play as many games as is safely possible?
Maybe that means an eight-game schedule. Maybe it’s a six-game, division-only schedule. Or, maybe the virus numbers get better soon, and the 10-game formula still looks doable.
As of Aug. 10, we just don’t know, and that’s OK to admit. Let’s learn more, then evaluate again in a few weeks. In the meantime, players should be able to continue to train on campus, if they so choose, in highly sterilized environments.
Iowa’s COVID-19 protocols demonstrate a responsible level of care.
Every day, each Iowa football player and staff member fills out a health survey asking about symptoms associated with the coronavirus. Last week, with the introduction of training camp, Iowa players learned they would be tested weekly for COVID-19. A positive test means a 10-days quarantine in a hotel room, then another four at home for the person with a positive test and anyone in his immediate circle. That process has taken a bite out of certain position groups at times, but it’s a protocol that (although expensive) is thorough.
Additionally, Iowa practice photos have shown players wearing face shields on their helmets (which covers the eyes and nose) and cloth masks over their mouths to limit the spread of the virus.
The football program has implemented socially-distanced workouts, along with mask requirements in the football building.
With meticulous measures in place to organize the possibility of a season, why not let this play out a little longer?
It would seem prudent to monitor the National Football League over the next few weeks as their training camps open before coming to a final conclusion.
My understanding is that there would be a small number of Iowa players who would opt out of the season if it were to be played in the fall, but more than 95% want to play.
Several Iowa players, in a spur-of-the-moment movement Sunday night and Monday morning, tweeted their desire to play football games this fall, using the hashtag #WeWantToPlay.
Fourth-year linebacker Nick Niemann tweeted, “We have full trust in the athletic department, medical staff and experts at Iowa and we are prepared to follow proper protocol! The coaches and players want to play!”
Fourth-year wide receiver Ihmir Smth-Marsette tweeted simply: “Find a solution!”
Their cries for a chance to play were reflected on a national level, including by stars such as Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. Those players are in agreement that if a player wants to opt out, he should be able to opt out. The Big Ten has said anyone opting out would not lose their scholarship.
So again, why the rush to cancel the season?
Many Iowa player parents contacted have been emailing UI President Bruce Harreld to voice support for Big Ten unity and for their sons to have an opportunity to play football, if they so choose.
“While we recognize and understand that the risk can never completely be eliminated,” the letter stated, “we believe that the risk is minimal and that our boys can have a safe and responsible college football season.”
Leave it to Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh to provide the voice of reason.
He posted a letter Monday advocating for a football season, pointing to Michigan having zero positive tests out of the past 353 administered and no pauses in training.
“We have followed all health and safety guidelines and welcome and encourage any health department, University administrators or other sports programs to visit and see how we practice and execute those protocols,” he wrote. “… This isn’t easy. This is hard. It is proven that the conduct, discipline and structure within our program have led to these stellar results. We respect the challenge that the virus has presented; however we will not cower from it.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.