B1G's historic debacle takes 180-degree turn ... and we're absolutely here for it. Let's go
WHAT IN THE (HECK) WAS THAT ALL ABOUT!?
There’s a scene in the 1996 comedy “Black Sheep” where Chris Farley’s character goes tumbling down a rural Washington mountain while stumping for his brother’s political campaign. At one point, he lands on solid ground, but it crumbles beneath him. He keeps falling. Then he grabs a shrub, but the roots give way.
By the time he reaches the bottom, Mike Donnelly is covered in dirt, disheveled and disoriented in that endearing way only Farley could pull off. He then lets out a primal exclamation that doubles as a question, quite akin to the collective cry of the Big Ten community during the past 5 weeks.
What was that about? How’d we get here? Does it even matter?
The historical ramifications of the B1G’s fall football cancellation-turned-kickoff can — and surely will — be weighed another day. But there’s at least some air of celebration in places like Columbus, Ann Arbor, Happy Valley, Lincoln and Iowa City as the conference now prepares for an Oct. 23-24 start.
Now, like Mike Donnelly, we get to hop off the ground, look back at the collapse, shake off the dust and keep trucking.
A cavalcade of headlines, conflicting reports, committees, task forces and vitriolic commentary has somehow given way to a very clear, cut-and-dried reality.
B1G football is back. Albeit with a razor-thin margin for error.
Eight games in 8 weeks, starting Oct. 23-24, plus a “championship week” with a B1G title game and matchups between the East and West’s No. 2, 3 teams and so on. “Stringent medical protocols,” in the words of the B1G’s official announcement, including daily antigen tests and expansive cardiac monitoring for players who test positive. The soonest a player with a positive test can return to competition is 21 days. There are also thresholds for team and community positivity rates — essentially, if there’s too much COVID, practices and games will get moved.
That appears likely. If we’ve learned one thing during this circus, it’s that nothing is certain during COVID-19.
Not even the commissioner of a major college football conference’s definitive statement that the decision to postpone fall sports “will not be revisited.”
It was. Almost as soon as it was made.
What flipped the mind of every league president outside of Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa, resulting in the unanimous vote announced Wednesday? Medical advancements? Politics? The venomous reaction from coaches, players, parents, fans and some media, which Commissioner Kevin Warren admitted surprised him? Other conferences’ decision to press on and play? Legal pressure?
The truth involves all of those factors.
The B1G on Wednesday toted development and availability of rapid testing, which is significantly farther along than it was a month and change ago. The magnitude of this decision and its impact on 14 college communities can’t be overstated, and it literally made its way up to the president of the United States in attempt to score political points.
The conference can lean on its “new” medical information. That also includes the issue of myocarditis. Initial reports around the cancellation cited the heart condition linked to COVID-19 as a deciding factor. But some experts have come out since and characterized it as overstated.
What the presidents and chancellors won’t admit is this: Not even they were immune to the painful backwardness of watching major college football happen on campuses all over the country — some in their own states — this past weekend. It appeared the B1G thought more conferences would follow it into the spring, just like they did in announcing conference-only slates.
School leaders also aren’t about to broadcast the fact a lot of university decisions involve legal liability mitigation. This was no exception.
How ironic is this: The B1G was so worried about the “uncertainty” surrounding COVID-19 that it canceled fall football. The idea of a class-action lawsuit stemming from putting students in harm’s way is enough to make any leader in academia push the panic button, and you can bet that weighed into their initial decision.
But by doing it so early, the conference actually incurred a very real legal threat — officially from Nebraska, verbally from Ohio’s attorney general. Lawsuits can cost 10s of millions of dollars. With highly-inflated costs, colleges don’t sit on that kind of cash. Add in revenue losses due to COVID-19, and you’ve got a full-on financial crisis in higher education.
Don’t think that wasn’t part of the decision process at every point during this tumultuous turnaround.
The Huskers, by the way, deserve a ton of credit for their unified approach, from the state’s attorney general on down to the players who joined coach Scott Frost in pleading for a season the day before it was initially axed. The Athletic has emails from university president Ted Carter dating to late July sending a similar message to Warren. Chancellor Ronnie Green, Athletic Director Bill Moos and Frost appear to be in lockstep.
And while it may have been intentional and taken “out of context,” as he said, Carter’s hot mic moment Tuesday morning that spilled the beans about the B1G’s impending announcement was a perfect anecdote in this saga.
(Good thing the B1G hired that public relations firm to lock up its communications strategy.)
Ohio State, Ryan Day and Justin Fields weren’t far behind Big Red. Neither was James Franklin.
The pushback mattered, too. It’s hard to imagine the presidents and Warren taking up a re-vote this quickly of their own volition.
But they did, and it passed. And now we’ll have a schedule to break down. Matchups to dissect. Heroes (Justin Fields is ready) to marvel at. Villains (looking at you, Coach Harbaugh) to disdain. Boy, have we needed it. Not just because of the train wreck that’s beset some of the proudest athletic programs and institutions in America. But because despite its politicization, corporatism and systematic disorganization, there’s something about college football that brings folks together in ways nothing else can.
It won’t look the same. Family season tickets will be replaced by group texts, tailgates by backyard, socially-distanced barbecues.
And we have to remember this could be all for naught. This is still a football season taking place amid a pandemic. More than a dozen FBS games have already been affected. Campuses across the country are dealing with outbreaks. Multiple B1G programs have had to shut down at some point due to positive tests.
We’ll likely see more of the same as the B1G’s schedule progresses. Empty or reduced-capacity stadiums. Fluid schedules. Roster shake-ups as the result of quarantines. And yes, the possibility remains the entire college football season isn’t played to completion.
But the B1G is doing what it should have done in the first place. It’s giving it a chance, explaining its reasons why (it even held a virtual press conference Wednesday morning!) and laying out the data behind its decisions.
That’s all anyone ever asked for.