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Big Ten right to postpone, but failed its players in the process

A week after a new schedule was released, and after four days of publicly embarrassing leadership, the inevitable plug was finally pulled.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Michigan at Indiana

The Big Ten didn’t want to postpone the 2020 football season.

But it was the right, no less difficult choice. Commissioner Kevin Warrren cited the unknowns of the novel coronavirus making it too risky to play a season, while the knowns add to the risk as well.

Over the last month, the conference has made clear it would cancel the fall sports season if its medical advisory board told them it couldn’t be done safely. And then it did, making the safe decision.

People can cast blame anywhere they want, whether it’s at the NCAA for refusing to help guide conferences to make decisions, or Power Five athletic directors, commissioners and university presidents for not developing any kind of comprehensive, flexible plan to make this season happen, instead just crossing their fingers, hoping the nation’s epidemic would have improved by now.

They all shoulder some of the responsibility, but the raging epidemic that has claimed nearly 170,000 American lives deserves more. It was always going to be hard to stage college sports in a pandemic, especially when the only the sports leagues to smoothly resume play have done so in bubbles, which have thus far been a no-no for unpaid, amateur student-athletes. Blame the circumstances, and everything that got us here.

“Nobody was really angry,” one Northwestern player said of the situation. “They’re just disappointed, people kinda saw it coming.”

The current schisms between conferences have helped lead to a grand debate about if postponing the fall season actually has the health and safety of players in mind. The medical experts of the Big Ten and Pac-12, along with numerous smaller conferences, said yes and gave their advice to the power brokers, who followed it. So far, those advising the SEC, ACC and Big 12 say continue on.

The arguments that being in the facilities and under program protocols make players safer than they would be elsewhere may have merit, but that still doesn’t mean it’s safe enough to play football. Numerous programs, despite their protocols, have sustained outbreaks, with some deciding to pause workouts. It means we’ve got a larger problem if you can’t go home and be safe.

Big Ten athletes will continue to be able to work out up to 20 hours per week during the fall, which many have cited as ridiculous if players aren’t able to play. But at least according the Pac-12 doctors via Bruce Feldman, the two aren’t equal. The medical team advised that they can control the spread better with distancing and precautions possible during working out in small groups “than when players are engaged in football — colliding, doing 9-on-7 drills, sweating and breathing on each other.”

The good news is that their structure remains, looking somewhat like a normal spring offseason.

It became clear that contact tracing issues posed an insurmountable obstacle to holding the season, with IIllinois athletic director Josh Whitman telling reporters “if one of those people test positive, it’s inevitable you have many other people put on the shelf, even if they test negative.”

Just look to Northwestern, whose one false positive test put 37 (!) individuals into quarantine through contact tracing. Even if those close contacts tested negative, in-season NCAA guidelines mandate they must serve a two-week quarantine before being cleared to return to play. Rules like that make it logistically very tough to finish a season let alone get through a few weeks, even with the ever flexible yet short-lived “Jenga 41” schedule the Big Ten unveiled last Wednesday.

Testing has come up as another problem, which goes hand in hand with the efficacy of contact tracing. The Big Ten had recently upped its mandated testing to twice weekly for high contact sports, but some schools went beyond that, like Illinois, which began testing its players daily. The Illini’s pseudo-bubble may have worked for now, but how effective would it have been when they’re playing a school that’s only testing its players twice or three times per week? You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and without uniform protocol, that left too much to chance.

Michigan’s chief health officer, who serves on one of the Big Ten’s medical advisory committees, said there just isn’t enough of the right testing available right now, citing the need for better volume, accuracy and turnaround time. Doctors didn’t seem to think the successful, Jim Harbaugh-touted protocols during workouts on an empty campus would hold up with contact practices and games, as well as thousands of students on campuses.

Then there’s myocarditis, the post-viral heart inflammation that has drawn plenty of attention lately for the role it’s played in young, healthy athletes. Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic reported the Big Ten was aware of at least 10 players who have the condition, and this is all before fall camp even started.

So yes, commend the Big 12 for putting in place robust cardiac health screening measures for all players who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 before clearing them to return, as the NFL has done. Those policies, however, don’t prevent anyone from getting myocarditis, and there’s no promise they all fully recover.

At the end of the day, the B1G’s doctors didn’t think the conference could safely play football in the fall, and the decision makers followed their advice. It’s just hard to give praise to a move made in disheveled, potentially rushed fashion. There wouldn’t be as much collective outrage at the postponement if administrators had handled it responsibly and with unity. Instead, they took everyone — players, coaches, athletic directors, media and fans — on a draining four-day ride that marred their choice.

Conference and university administrators should have been actively planning for this scenario, developing contingency plans to delay the season and put in more stringent protocols to both stop the spread and aid in the recovery of COVID-19. It is truly mind boggling to see that item one of their plans was hope. Hope is as much a plan as Nebraska is a member of the Big 12.

Even with better forethought, no season was guaranteed. Those still pushing ahead to play in late September face an uphill battle to play college football.

But the Big Ten did itself no favors all but giving up on the season three days after unveiling a schedule it said was designed to give football every chance to happen. It just made no sense. What changed?

“The science came at us really fast,” said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. Why? How? Information on COVID-19’s cardiac affects has been public for months. One of the most infuriating parts of this entire process has been people in power not acknowledging or considering a risk until it’s about to happen. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there” is winless so far against the coronavirus.

The conference’s lack of preparedness unsurprisingly manifested itself worst for the student-athletes, who had no idea the status of their season, learning more from Twitter craziness than their own programs.

“If you talked to a lot of the guys, everyone’s going to say they’re aggravated with the lack of communication displayed by the Big Ten,” one player told Inside NU. “Coach Fitzgerald was giving us all the information possible, he was being as open and as honest, the best coach you could possibly be in the situation. But even our head coach didn’t have answers from the higher ups.”

The Big Ten and Pac-12 weren’t ready to go any further, while the ACC reportedly wants to see how campus repopulation goes, and the SEC and Big 12 seem publicly determined to make this work one way or another. For the players who’d been brought back a month and a half ago only to have receive such an abrupt decision, it didn’t sit well. Why couldn’t the conference have delayed the season by a few weeks, bought itself some more time to gather more information, and then pulled the plug if the doctors’ advice hadn’t changed?

Players — and coaches, and ADs and fans — would’ve rather seen some more fight from their conference leaders, even if it didn’t amount to a season. Instead, they felt given up on, like stones had gone unturned. At least just start answering some questions before you just cancel it, said one player.

Players have eligibility concerns and will wonder what a spring season might look like and how it could affect the fall 2021 season. It has never been done before, and there are health concerns about that.

In a BTN interview following the postponement announcement, Warren provided few concrete details to support his league’s decision, which didn’t do him any favors, especially a week after he said he’d feel comfortable with his son Powers — who plays at Mississippi State — playing in the Big Ten under their protocols. What changed?

Hearing information from Whitman and other doctors is helpful, but why not lead with it to help defend the choice ? Tell the players why it wasn’t doable and what needs to change for a spring season to become reality. Otherwise, we’re still stuck in March.

The Pac-12 at least released the documents and suggestions that led it to unanimously cancel the fall season. The Big Ten, which continued to cite vague “unknowns” has seemingly just retreated into the darkness as it was clear the choice was not made in unity.

The conference’s incoherence and sudden change of heart pitted coaches against administrators who had their best health interests in mind. Where was the communication of the medical advice from the commissioner and presidents down to the ADs and coaches? Jim Harbaugh wrote a strong letter urging the conference play on that infamous Monday, while Michigan’s president, an infectious diseases doctor, very much supported the conference’s action to postpone.

At the very least, as Jay Bilas and others have cried out, the players and public should hear from the boards of doctors who are heavily influencing whether or not seasons get played. The players have already felt voiceless and locked out of conversations about their season.

Now, the Big Ten makes the remaining conferences look commendable for not caving for a couple of weeks before contact practices begin and students return to campuses en masse. The SEC is receiving praise for soldiering on. The same SEC that was exposed a couple weeks ago for giving concerned players woefully inadequate answers about safety protocols.

The B1G’s sudden cancellation begs the question, especially from players who face their first football-less fall in roughly 10 years, what’s next? You rarely fire a coach, even a bad one, without first considering who might replace them. But that’s what the Big Ten has done, leaving its members in limbo.

Good on Ohio State, which within an hour of the conference’s announcement released the following information about how it plans to support its players and provide them with mental and physical health structure during this unusual time.

Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, heartbroken for his players, drafted a plan for both spring and fall 2021 seasons Thursday morning. While it’s surely not perfect, and who knows if it’s feasible, he did more in one day than conference leadership did in five months.

If the Big Ten learns anything from this debacle, it’s that if any spring season is to happen, everyone must be in lockstep. This situation might be inevitably fluid, but it didn’t need to be hellish.