Leistikow: Medical concerns eased, united-again Big Ten approves return to football
Away we go.
Big Ten Conference football is back on the calendar, scheduled to begin the weekend of Oct. 23-24, the league announced Wednesday morning.
The somewhat stunning reversal comes from the same Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors (COPC) that exactly five weeks earlier voted 11-3 to postpone fall sports with hopes of playing in the spring.
News of the Big Ten's decision was first leaked Tuesday morning by the hot mic of University of Nebraska president Ted Carter, a hilarious and fitting final twist in what's been a public-relations fiasco for the conference for more than a month.
Did Carter spill the news on purpose? I'm skeptical, but it'd be a pretty epic move for the president of the school that initially talked of going rogue to foil the Big Ten's planned, grand re-entry to the football field.
Either way, a lot of folks were thrilled to learn that Big Ten football would be coming sooner than expected to stadiums around the Midwest. And that finally became official about 24 hours after Carter's overheard comments.
Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez, the head of the Big Ten's scheduling subcommittee, said each team will play an eight-game regular season followed by a "champion's week" centered around a Dec. 19 title game of the East and West division winners, plus matchups for the second-place teams, third-place teams, etc. In other words, the plan is for each university to play nine games.
The College Football Playoff is scheduled to be set on Dec. 20.
Daily antigen testing proved to be the key element of the Big Ten's return to competition, it outlined in a wide-ranging release Wednesday morning.
“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 a statement. “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.”
Even though coronavirus cases are still circulating on Big Ten campuses, rapid-testing capabilities ultimately swayed the COPC.
It can’t be ignored that places like Madison, Wisconsin, and East Lansing, Michigan, are dealing with quarantine-induced outbreaks. And Iowa City is far from clear, although the numbers have stabilized since the massive spike just before Labor Day that also shut down Iowa athletics for more than a week.
But rapid testing has been the key for resuming successful sports activity and mitigating the coronavirus spread, and two reports this week seemed to offer the encouragement that Big Ten decision-makers needed.
In the Pacific-12 Conference, rapid-response antigen tests that will be delivered to all member schools by the end of the month have had tremendous success in large sample-size trials at Arizona, according to the San Jose Mercury News. The tests that report positive or negative results for the coronavirus in 15 minutes were found to be 96% to 98% accurate when compared with 48-hour testing.
The cost per rapid-response test is roughly $21 to $23, and the Mercury-News outlined that if 150 football players were tested daily for 15 weeks (training camp plus the season itself), the total tab would be around $350,000. That’s a lot of money, but that’s a pittance of the TV dollars that will be rolling into university coffers if games return.
Additionally, a co-author of an Ohio State myocarditis study spoke with the Columbus Dispatch and said that the results being discussed last week as doom-and-gloom were missing the bigger picture that cardiac magnetic resonance (CMR) imaging tests helped identify athletes who may be susceptible to myocarditis.
“It’s actually the opposite,” Ohio State cardiologist Curt Daniels told the Dispatch. “We’re saying we actually found this, but we know a path now to say it’s safe to go back as opposed to having this uncomfortable feeling of not knowing anything (about the actual risk).”
Ohio State requires that athletes who test positive for the coronavirus must pass a cardiology exam before returning to action, another layer of the conversation that helped ease earlier worries about myocarditis.
The Big Ten will begin daily testing of football players on Sept. 30, it said, with other sports eventually following. In Wednesday's release, the league said it would require anyone on the field for practices or games (coaches, trainers, etc.) to undergo daily antigen testing and that "results must be completed and recorded prior to each practice or game."
It still begs the question: Why couldn’t the Big Ten have been more patient in the beginning?
The conference’s revised original start date of Sept. 5 was overly ambitious, perhaps, but the 11-3 vote to postpone fall sports altogether on Aug. 11 was overly abrupt. Wednesday's announcement showed unanimous support for the Big Ten's reversal.
Iowa president Bruce Harreld would have preferred to delay the season. (He probably wondered, "Hey, how about pushing it to October?"). That timeline would have kept student-athletes in all sports more focused on their daily routines and protocols, and would have had them better-positioned for a return to the field if medical data improved … which it has, at least in the eyes of the COPC.
Wisconsin chancellor Rebecca Blank said during a Monday teleconference that there were “a variety of things that have changed since we first made that decision.”
For future reference: When you have built-in flexibility in a plan, use that flexibility first before hitting the self-destruct button. Instead, the Big Ten's chosen path led to more than a month of damaging public relations and lost trust from a large and vocal base (including prominent league coaches Ryan Day, James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh). Had the season instead been delayed in the first place by four to six weeks, the league would have been seen as pragmatic while also focusing on player safety.
There is no guarantee that Oct. 23-24 happens, of course. But at least we have a target date.
We’ve already seen several early-September games in other conferences postponed because of outbreaks of the coronavirus. So, declaring that the Big Ten engine is in full, undeterred operation would be premature. And then there's this nugget from the press release: "The earliest a student-athlete can return to game competition is 21 days following a COVID-19 positive diagnosis."
So, get ready for some wildly fluctuating rosters.
But now there can be some relief for detail-driven football coaches and their eager-to-play athletes. Training and practice plans can be implemented, and there will be a heightened sense of urgency that there is indeed an important game in just over weeks. These aren’t going to be warmup acts against FCS opponents; an unprepared team could see its hopes for a Big Ten championship diminished quickly. Every game will mean a lot.
The teams that have done the best work between January and today (and those that can stay clear of the coronavirus) will likely be rewarded with wins.
At Iowa, there’s ground to recover. Organized football activities were limited to three weightlifting sessions between Aug. 10 and Sept. 8. They just got back to work last Wednesday and haven’t been in pads together since the Dec. 27, 2019, Holiday Bowl.
Now that the Big Ten's COPC has reversed its original decision, it would be shocking if there was further backpedaling. This is now a unified train is moving forward. All 14 teams will play, up to nine games each.
Although there are a ton of questions yet to answer, Wednesday morning's confirmation and outline offered some long-desired clarity from the beleaguered Big Ten, which ultimately said: Let's play some football.
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.