The Big Ten would have eight weeks for regular season games and then a conference championship held the weekend of Dec. 19, just before the College Football Playoff committee’s selection Dec. 20. That weekend, all other Big Ten teams will play another game with the No. 2 team in the East division playing the No. 2 team in the West and so forth. Those games could be tweaked to avoid rematches, and the locations of those games have yet to be determined.
“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.”
Athletes, coaches and others who are on the field for practices and games will be tested daily beginning Sept. 30. Any player who tests positive cannot play in a game until at least 21 days after his diagnosis.
Each school will designate a chief infection officer to oversee the testing data. If a team has a positivity rate of more than 5 percent, the team must stop practice and competition for at least seven days. In the case of a positivity rate between 2 and 5 percent, the school should “consider [the] viability of continuing with scheduled competition,” the Big Ten’s announcement said.
The conference’s presidents and chancellors previously voted in favor of canceling the fall sports season, citing too much medical uncertainty stemming from the novel coronavirus pandemic. After the Big Ten’s announcement Aug. 11, the Pac-12 followed suit and punted on fall sports, while the three other major conferences forged ahead. The ACC and Big 12 both opened the 2020 season last weekend, and the SEC schedule begins later this month. The Pac-12 is now the only Power Five conference that does not plan to play this fall.
The Big Ten faced immediate pushback from some of its coaches and players after its initial decision. A small group of parents held a rally outside the conference’s headquarters near Chicago. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, one of the best players in the league, urged the Big Ten to reverse its decision with a petition that received more than 300,000 signatures. Some Big Ten coaches publicly criticized the conference and voiced their desire to play games this fall.
In response to those outcries, Warren wrote in a letter that the vote by the presidents and chancellors was “overwhelmingly in support of postponing fall sports and will not be revisited.”
The Big Ten did not provide any plans about other fall sports returning to play. The conference’s announcement Wednesday said that updates “will be announced shortly.”
President Trump has advocated that the Big Ten, which spans multiple states critical to his reelection campaign, return to play as soon as possible. He spoke with Warren earlier this month, with both Trump and the Big Ten describing the call as a “productive conversation.”
Trump tweeted Wednesday: “Great News: BIG TEN FOOTBALL IS BACK. All teams to participate. Thank you to the players, coaches, parents, and all school representatives. Have a FANTASTIC SEASON! It is my great honor to have helped!!!”
The virus, which has killed more than 192,000 people in the United States, continues to spread across the country. In the Big Ten, the counties of six schools — Penn State, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State and Nebraska — are averaging more than 30 new cases per 100,000 people per day, according to Washington Post data.
But college sports have moved closer toward securing rapid testing, which would help prevent outbreaks within programs. The Pac-12 and Big 12 announced partnerships with health care manufacturers that provide rapid tests, which is perhaps the most significant development since the Big Ten initially decided against playing this fall. Daily testing is now a key component of the Big Ten’s plan for returning to play.
When the Big Ten postponed the season, the conference’s presidents and chancellors reportedly voted 11-3 in favor of the decision. The conference requires that at least nine of those university leaders vote in favor of the decision for it to take effect, so in this case, at least six members of the council had to change their vote. The unanimous vote to resume play was an important display of agreement within the conference following a month of chaos.
On Tuesday, during a congressional hearing about player compensation, Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank said the Big Ten postponed the season primarily because of uncertainty regarding the conference’s ability to conduct testing and contact tracing, as well as concerns about myocarditis, the inflammation of the heart muscle that can result from viral illnesses.
“Until we have answers to that, we will keep our season postponed,” Blank said. “Once we have answers to that and to some of those issues and think that we have ways to deal with them effectively, we will try to plan a delayed season.
If the Big Ten chooses to play this fall, Blank said: “Your first question should be, ‘What’s changed?’ And hopefully we will have answers to exactly the issues that I just raised.”
When asked by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) whether such a decision would need to be unanimous, Blank said: In the Big Ten, “we almost always decide everything by consensus. We very rarely take votes.”
The Big Ten’s announcement detailed its plans to face the challenges that previously prompted the conference to postpone the season. After a Big Ten athlete tests positive, he will undergo “comprehensive cardiac testing,” the Big Ten’s announcement said. Players will have to be cleared by a cardiologist before they are cleared to return.
“In addition to the medical protocols approved, the 14 Big Ten institutions will establish a cardiac registry in an effort to examine the effects on COVID-19 positive student-athletes,” the Big Ten’s announcement said. “The registry and associated data will attempt to answer many of the unknowns regarding the cardiac manifestations in COVID-19 positive elite athletes.”
The conferences that have already begun playing this season have not done so without problems. Three Big 12 teams had to postpone their games scheduled for last weekend because of positive tests. In the ACC, the season-opening game between Virginia and Virginia Tech, which was scheduled for Sept. 19, was postponed after the Hokies had to suspend football practices. Virginia Tech’s previously scheduled opener, a Sept. 12 game against North Carolina State, had already been postponed because of an outbreak in the Wolfpack athletic department.
Some teams have played without dozens of players, and even a small number of positive tests in a program can force many more to sit out because of contact tracing. Coaches now must navigate those absences on top of the usual losses from injuries or suspensions. Georgia Southern played without 33 players in its 27-26 win Saturday against Campbell, an FCS opponent.
After the Big Ten and other conferences postponed their fall seasons, the NCAA’s Division I Council approved a plan that allows the teams not playing this fall to practice 12 hours per week.
Multiple Big Ten programs have had to recently pause practices because of coronavirus outbreaks. At Maryland, 46 athletes tested positive, but most of those came from sports outside football, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. The Terps’ football program still had to suspend workouts in early September, and practices resumed Sept. 11. Wisconsin’s football program recently paused team activities for two weeks. Penn State paused team activities for some sports after 48 athletes tested positive, but the school did not specify which teams this affected.
The return of the student body has heightened the risk in college communities. When these athletes began voluntary workouts in June, they returned to mostly empty campuses. Most Big Ten schools are relying on mixed instruction, with some in-person classes and others held remotely.
After at least 342 people affiliated with Michigan State tested positive, the local health department recommended all students self-quarantine immediately through Sept. 26. That type of surge calls into question how well these campuses will be able to contain the virus moving forward and if the football programs can effectively shield players from the general public.