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Big Ten football leaders struggle to convey a consistent message, keep doctors in background

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The coronavirus confusion continued Saturday, with the Big Ten Conference front and center again.

On Wednesday, the league rolled out an ambitious 10-game football schedule that was to commence Sept. 3, leading the charge among its Power 5 peers, who are generally being more cautious.

On Saturday, shortly after the Mid-American Conference became the first in FBS to cancel its fall football season, the Big Ten backpedaled, instructing its teams to continue to allow players to practice in helmets but without pads for the foreseeable future. That means minimal physical contact for football players who are attempting to prepare to compete in a sport in which physical contact is essentially the point.

Every day it seems there are new questions about how a college football season can proceed amid a pandemic. Saturday’s questions then became:

What did the Big Ten learn about the spread of COVID-19 in two days of football practices that wasn’t previously known? And will the league ever share that information with the public?

“Each new phase of activity provides new intelligence and experience and allows us to evaluate the implementation of our conference and institutional medical protocols in real-time,” the Big Ten said in a statement Saturday, implying that there was a plan in place all along to potentially slow down football practices, which began Friday at Iowa.

While football players keep the pads off, the Big Ten intends to “digest and share information from each campus to ensure we are moving forward cautiously.”

Iowa football players Chauncey Golston (left) and Daviyon Nixon were engaged in fully padded practices last spring to get ready for the 2019 season. They have not had that opportunity so far in 2020, and it was delayed again Saturday when the Big Ten Conference instructed its teams to keep players out of pads for now.

It’s difficult to reconcile that statement with Wednesday’s announcement that the Hawkeyes are supposed to host Maryland at Kinnick Stadium on Sept. 5. That’s a short window to prepare for the rigors of a college football season under any circumstances, let alone when the team has already lost its spring practice regimen over concerns about COVID-19. So perhaps it’s for the best that Iowa hadn’t yet announced a kickoff time for its home opener, or started selling tickets.

It’s also noteworthy that eight Maryland players have announced their intention to sit out this season, further underscoring how tenuous this all is. The players, and their families, are pushing for more information about how the league thinks it can safely pull off a season. The Big Ten response is to keep issuing statements without any real transparency.

This is vexing because the Big Ten, which is home to seven of the top 40 medical research hospitals in the country according to the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings, formed a Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases back in March. That is when the new coronavirus was first taking hold in America, leading to the cancellation of the NCAA basketball and wrestling tournaments, plus all spring sports.

The task force was the brainchild of new Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and includes one health expert from each of the league’s 14 universities. Dr. Chris Kratochvil, the associate vice chancellor for clinical research at Nebraska, is the chairman. Dr. Edith Parker, dean of the college of public health, is Iowa’s representative.

It would be wise of the Big Ten to make sure these are the people that football players, fans and the media hear from next. What have the medical professionals been advising the league to do for the past five months? And what do they think needs to happen in order for football games to occur safely this fall?

Perhaps Kratocvhil could become the top doctor for the Big Ten in a sense. It certainly would help cut through some of the confusion if the league routinely explained the science behind its decisions. What is occurring now appears from the outside to be haphazard guesswork and wishful thinking.

Iowa Hawkeyes players run into the tunnel after a NCAA non conference football game against Miami of Ohio, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

The fans want answers about whether Big Ten football will be played this fall, of course. But the biggest victims in all of this are the athletes, who may find that they’ve been preparing for a season that will never even start. It’s no wonder that some of them have decided not to take that risk without any sense of whether there will be a reward.

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst had already canceled his team’s practices until Monday. His boss, College Football Hall of Famer Barry Alvarez, had an unusually gloomy interview with Yahoo Sports on Friday, saying: “I’m afraid. … There’s so many questions that are unanswered. I see things change every day.”

No one is expecting Kevin Warren, or any athletic official, to have all the answers right now. But if the Big Ten has been working in good faith for five months to ensure the safety of its athletes, with the guidance of some of the top medical experts in the field, then there should be some sense that there is a solid plan in place for a football season that is supposedly less than a month away.

And if not, just admit it, and let everyone move on with the hope that college football can be safely played in 2021.

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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