In 2020, there is no scene when the Big Ten makes a monumental announcement. It’s just six squares on a Zoom call, answering questions from invisible media members. The impact, though, is the same.
Football is back, starting Oct. 23. Just five weeks after postponing the season indefinitely, it’ll happen long before anyone — including the people in charge — thought was possible. Here’s everything you need to know from the Big Ten’s press conference to explain the decision.
Why’d they reverse course?
Despite lawsuits, parent protests and the President of the United States tweeting in support of playing, what swayed the 14 school presidents and chancellors who decide this was medical advances. Each school in the league will complete rapid antigen testing each day, starting on or before Sept. 30, with confirmatory PCR testing for positive cases.
Availability of these tests, they’re betting, will prevent COVID-19 from spreading within teams or during competition, making it as safe as possible to play a season.
“I think as we worked with our task force, infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists and looked at this process that, quite frankly, others have described as well, and as we looked at the various testing options, we became more and more convinced that there was a path forward,” Ohio State’s Dr. Jim Borchers, a co-chair of the Big Ten’s medical task force, said.
Northwestern president Morton Schapiro said he became convinced over the last week, thanks to the unanimous opinion of medical experts consulted by the league. A subset of presidents and chancellors spoke with doctors on Saturday, on Sunday and then again late last night, Schapiro said, providing a final push ahead of a unanimous decision.
“The turning point for me was just that,” Schapiro said, “as I’ve said before, I’m not a physician and when the medical team was divided as they were five weeks ago, some people were convinced, I wasn’t, as you know from the vote, but then it turned around over the course of the last week, I would say. And once we got the testing arrangements pretty much set and figured out how to do it safely, that’s how we move forward.”
What’s the schedule and when is it coming out?
The league will play an eight-game regular season, with a ninth opponent determinant on division standings. While the winners of the Big Ten East and West play each other in the conference title games, the second place finishers will play each other the same week. So will the third and fourth-place finishers, and so on.
That ninth week will be Dec. 18-19, which means there won’t be any bye weeks. Playing nine games in a row is something at least a few teams do every year, but trying to do it in 2020 is a major bet that the Big Ten’s COVID strategy will work. The reasoning behind it is to get the league in the College Football Playoff and any other bowl games it can.
“I think that’s a real possibility and something that I know our student athletes across our 14 institutions really, really are excited about,” Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said. “A chance not only within the CFP but within the bowl structure and it’s been something that’s connected with the Big Ten for a lot of years.
“So to play a regular season in a meaningful way … to do it under the lights that our student athletes so enjoy doing and to have it culminate at the end of the year with a chance to play in the CFP and additional bowl games is incredibly exciting.”
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said the locations for the final week’s games — or the structure for determining them — isn’t yet known. Matchups could also be shuffled around to avoid a repeat, but that’s also a decision yet to be made.
As for the calendar itself, that should come this week.
How are they testing for COVID-19?
The Big Ten’s strategy is similar to that of the Pac-12 with daily rapid antigen testing. Being able to get results fast, instead of the 24 hours or longer required for PCR tests, is the big difference.
“If we can test daily with rapid testing in these small populations of teams, we’re very likely to reduce infectiousness inside practice and game competition to nearly 100 percent,” Borchers said. “And we can never say 100 percent but we feel very confident that with that approach.”
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said all fall sports will get the daily testing, with the Big Ten paying the expense. Results will be reported to the conference, though it’s unclear whether schools will be required to make those public.
If an athlete tests positive, there’s a minimum 21-day sit-out time. That comes down to cardiac testing for heart issues that could arise due to COVID-19, which Borchers said requires a 14-day wait from a positive test before being evaluated. There’s also simply getting back into playing shape which combined with the cardiac testing, gets you to a 21-day period, assuming of course that there’s a smooth recovery from COVID-19.
“Just like everything in medicine, it’s not like we invented this,” Borchers said, “but we investigated it and feel very comfortable with that approach moving forward.”
Is there enough time to get athletes ready?
Despite a lack of full-contact practice and some programs having been on pause as recently as this week, the league is confident athletes can be ready to play in time for Oct. 23.
“As far as I understand, our athletes will be able to start practice immediately,” Alvarez said. “And that’s what we’re talking about right now about how many hours. If they should be back to a 20-hour week.
“… Our athletes have been working out. Even though we postponed the season our athletes were still available to work out and put in time during the week, their conditioning should be good. And they certainly should have plenty of time in preparation for this season.”
Doing full-contact practices before daily testing is available brings its own set of problems. If a team has a set of positive tests that results in a two-week quarantine, it’s hard to see them being ready for Week 1, and the league is putting itself on a tight schedule to try and make the CFP.
There’s a thin line to walk here. A slew of soft-tissue injuries in the first couple of weeks doesn’t help anyone. That said, Michigan players have been adamant that they can be ready within just a couple of weeks — and this gives them more time than they asked for.
Will there be fans at football games?
Regardless of state or local regulations, Penn State AD Sandy Barbour said general ticket sales won’t be permitted throughout the league. It’s possible parents of athletes or staff members could come, but besides that, stadiums will be empty.
What happens to non-revenue sports?
The only real bit of clarity on this topic came when Warren said they would get the same daily antigen testing as football teams. That, along with a line in the league’s announcement that said details on other sports would be coming soon, implies that Olympic sports will get to play this year.
But if you had any doubt what the real priority was here, this is what the Big Ten commissioner said when asked about non-revenue sports returning to play:
“One of the focal points, starting tomorrow morning when we meet together again will be to make a determination. As you know, some of the fall sports championships have already been moved to the spring. So we’ll talk about that internally and I’ll, as always, follow the advice and guidance of our athletic directors and we’ll make the determination at that appropriate time. And we’ll be able to circle back and make that announcement, too.
“But we felt from a logistical standpoint, from an operational standpoint, that we needed to button down football because, one, with the number of student athletes there, we figured once we got that solved, then being able to apply those same policies, procedures, and protocols (to) the other sports would be straightforward. So we’ll start having those discussions tomorrow.”
In short — now that they’ve saved their moneymaker, they can worry about the rest.