If Big Ten football occurs, it will be on players' terms

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The strangest offseason in Big Ten Conference football history took the oddest turn yet Wednesday morning.

The league used its cable TV network to try to drum up enthusiasm for a fall season that is still in peril. And just as sports-starved fans were dissecting the new 10-game schedule, the athletes being asked to put themselves at risk in order to pull it off came out with their own well-thought-out proposal.

It was the clearest sign yet that those who believe they are pulling the strings in college sports may be about to discover that the days of such puppetry are over.

At issue is ensuring the safety of the football players. More than 1,000 of them in the Big Ten — meaning the vast majority of those on rosters at the 14 schools — signed on to a “unity proposal” released on The Players’ Tribune web site calling for uniform COVID-19 testing procedures throughout the league, something that has been lacking.

“The NCAA — which is known for its zeal for regulations and enforcement — has had ample time to prepare for the safe return of its athletes to competition, yet it has done nothing. Its laissez-faire approach is forcing each conference and each school to create its own plan,” the players wrote.

Read the players' proposal:https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/big-ten-covid-19-football-season

Big Ten Conference commissioner Kevin Warren, trying to navigate the obstacles provided by a global pandemic in his first year on the job, conceded that a football season may not be feasible even while releasing a new schedule of games set to start Sept. 3. The league is mandating that football players be tested for the new coronavirus at least twice per week.

The players are asking for three tests, by a third party that meets their approval. And not just for the athletes, but for anyone who comes into contact with them, “including coaches, trainers, medical staff, nutrition staff, referees, media, etc.”

The players’ proposal continues:

“Additionally, testing on the day of competition (or within 24 hours of competition for each team that can be quarantined) with an FDA-approved test with less than 5% false negatives, with results delivered at least two hours before competition.”

The Big Ten schedule released Wednesday does not include kickoff times, but if this requirement is to happen, you can assume most games will have to take place in the evenings.

Time is running short, as the players’ message noted with obvious consternation. Training camps are set to open Thursday and Friday. The NCAA revealed Wednesday an Aug. 21 deadline to determine if fall sports will proceed as planned.

Big Ten Conference commissioner Kevin Warren had to announce the cancellation of his men's basketball tournament in March. Now he is trying to pull off a football season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 1,000 of his players wrote Wednesday that they want much stricter safety protocols in place first.

A handful of players are already announcing their intent to sit this season out, notably Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and Michigan State defensive tackle Jacub Panasiuk, all NFL prospects. Panasiuk went public the same day that the Spartan football team emerged from a quarantine after a COVID-19 outbreak.

Warren took the lead among Power 5 commissioners by announcing July 9 that the Big Ten would play a conference-only schedule this fall. Then he reportedly delayed the release of that schedule in order to chat with a football player at each school this week to gauge how comfortable they were in proceeding.

That apparently wasn’t good enough for the players who spoke out Wednesday.

“Given that the NCAA and conference leadership have not asked for our input, we feel compelled to call for clarity, commitment, and action regarding our common-sense proposal,” they wrote.

After initially being cautious, Warren’s league is now set to play games earlier than its Power 5 peers. The SEC and Pac-12 have said they will start Sept. 26. The ACC will begin games the week after the Big Ten. The Big 12 has yet to release a schedule.

Iowa is going to begin its training camp Friday as originally scheduled, the school announced Wednesday. Hawkeye players have been on campus working out since June 8. Coach Kirk Ferentz said there have been some positive cases of COVID-19 on his team, but not at a level that required a disruption in the schedule.

Fueling the players’ frustration apparently is the way that schools have handled releasing information related to COVID-19 cases, and differing thresholds for when to cease practicing when positive results are returned.

There has been good news on that front. For example, Iowa’s scheduled first opponent, Maryland, reported no COVID-19 cases this week. But Northwestern briefly stopped workouts after a single positive case, while Illinois revealed at least three active cases on its roster with no plans to take a hiatus. Iowa is scheduled to play both of those teams, as well as Michigan State and Ohio State, which have reported outbreaks of the coronavirus on their rosters at various times this summer.

The players are calling for: “Objective criteria for shutting down seasons should the pandemic take a turn for the worse or if teams experience significant outbreaks.”

Who will set those criteria? How will “significant” be defined?

It may be up to Warren and his office. Or perhaps university presidents and athletic directors will agree on that front. The NCAA could even issue a recommendation.

But it’s obvious now that the players want a seat at that table. And they will ultimately determine if a season occurs.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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