Big 10 reverses course, schools will play football starting next month

Iowa’s LeShun Daniels Jr. is tackled just short of the goal line. Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The Big 10 Conference announced on Wednesday morning its football teams will play this fall in an abbreviated season that starts on Oct. 23. The announcement comes 36 days after the conference declared it had canceled the fall season due to concerns over the health of student athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement when the cancellation was announced last month. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

Only three members of the Big 10 Council of Presidents and Chancellors (COPC) voted in favor of having a fall season at the time. University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld was one of the three.

Of the major college football conferences, only the Big 10 and the Pac 12 canceled their fall seasons as part of their efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health of students.

The week after the cancellation, Warren said the decision was final, telling reporters the conference’s COPC was “overwhelmingly in support of postponing fall sports and will not be revisited.”

On Sunday, less than five weeks after Warren said that, the COPC reversed its decision. The three-day delay in announcing that reversal was reportedly due to a need to work out certain details regarding the fall season.

According to the Big 10, the past month has seen sufficient medical progress regarding COVID-19 to allow it to safely resume play. Dr. Jim Borchers, the Ohio State team physician and medical co-chair of the Big 10 return to competition task force, gave a presentation to the COPC prior to the vote that reportedly convinced the school leaders to proceed with a fall season.

“Everyone associated with the Big Ten should be very proud of the groundbreaking steps that are now being taken to better protect the health and safety of the student-athletes and surrounding communities,” Borchers said in a statement published by the conference.

“The data we are going to collect from testing and the cardiac registry will provide major contributions for all 14 Big Ten institutions as they study COVID-19 and attempt to mitigate the spread of the disease among wider communities.”

The cardiac registry information is important because at the time the Big 10 canceled its seasons, at least 10 players in the conference had been diagnosed with myocarditis, a relatively rare heart condition that has been associated with COVID-19.

The Big 10 had faced strong pushback from fans and the players’ parents as soon as it announced the fall season cancellation. The conference was also under pressure from Republican politicians, from President Trump to Gov. Kim Reynolds, to reverse its decision.

Trump has repeatedly tweeted that college football must be played this fall, and even called Warren to try and press him to hold games.

At the end of her news conference last Thursday, Reynolds said she was working on a letter to Warren with “several other governors.” The governor said the letter “would effectively say the same thing” as a letter Speaker of the Iowa House Pat Grassley and Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, both Republicans, sent to Warren on Sept. 8.

In the letter, which was also signed by eight Republican officials from other states with Big 10 schools, Grassley and Whitver asked for the Big 10 to reverse its decision saying they believed it could be held safely, and reminded Warren that “our universities stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars that support vital student scholarships” without a fall season.

The letter, sent on official Iowa House of Representatives stationary, also expressed concern that Big 10 students who play football were “becoming less marketable to their future employers with each passing week.”

President Trump congratulated the Big 10 on Wednesday morning, saying it was his “great honor” to have helped convince the leaders of its universities to reverse their earlier decision.