Opinion: Big Ten’s decision to play football signals darkest day in conference’s sports history

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For decades, the Big Ten has thought of itself as a different kind of sports conference, one that proudly touts the academic achievements and Great Lakes values of its like-minded, highly-regarded, internationally-ranked research institutions. The Big Ten wasn’t the SEC; it wasn’t the Big 12. It was better than that, and it was happy to tell you all about it.

As proof, one only had to look at the conference’s prudent August decision to shut down fall sports in the midst of the global pandemic. It was only natural that the Big Ten would follow the Ivy League, and that the Pac-12 would follow the Big Ten. It was a tough decision, heartbreaking and costly, but it was the right one.

That’s the Big Ten for you, concerned about science, medicine and safety. Let the football factories of the SEC, Big 12 and ACC (Clemson’s playground) continue playing; the Big Ten was doing the right thing looking out for its student-athletes, treating them almost no differently than the student body at large, and that was all that mattered.

Then came Wednesday, the darkest day in Big Ten sports history, the day the vaunted conference caved. It choked. It got scared. It became the SEC.

Just as the Big Ten was looking smarter by the day as COVID-19 outbreaks popped up at Michigan State, Wisconsin and Maryland while other conferences playing football announced COVID-related postponements and soaring cases, the league’s presidents reversed themselves and decided to steer their schools and their football programs right into the teeth of what are predicted to be some of the worst days of the pandemic in October and November.

Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten will play football this fall after the school announced plans to start the season on Oct. 24.

And how are they doing it? With a mountain of daily antigen tests, special delivery for Big Ten football teams only. Rapid tests for football players, but apparently not for the elderly in Ann Arbor or Columbus or Evanston, or for school children and teachers in Bloomington or New Brunswick or Minneapolis, or for students paying for their education amid the outbreaks in East Lansing or Madison or College Park. 

So how will this work? Smooth as silk, I’m sure. Let’s look at Michigan State. The other day, all MSU students were asked to self-quarantine – and 30 large houses, including 23 fraternities and sororities, were ordered into mandatory quarantine – after the school announced 342 new coronavirus cases.

“This is an urgent situation,” Ingham County Health Officer Linda S. Vail said. “The exponential growth of COVID-19 cases must stop.”

So hey, Michigan State, let’s start football! What could go wrong? Here was LSU head coach Ed Orgeron’s COVID strategy Tuesday: “Not all of our players but most of our players have caught it. I think that hopefully they won’t catch it again, and hopefully they’re not out for games.”

This is the Nebraska-ization of the Big Ten. Who would have thought that when Nebraska and Ohio State and a few of the league’s other squeakiest wheels started whining about missing out on football, the Big Ten presidents would buckle rather than stand up to them?

Or, we could call it the Trumpeting of the Big Ten. It was just two weeks ago that Trump, desperate to win votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, told the conference to play football. Originally, the league stood its ground. Rutgers president Jonathan Holloway aptly called it “cheap politics.” But wouldn’t you know, the university presidents ended up following right along, giving Trump exactly what he wanted.

I never would have expected the Big Ten presidents to be so shaky, so fearful, so afraid of their own shadow. I grew up in Big Ten country, in the suburbs of Toledo, Ohio, in a family that spent fall Saturdays at Michigan games. I went to Northwestern University, where I received undergraduate and master’s degrees. I’m still very involved at NU to this day; in addition to being a professor of practice at the Medill School of Journalism, I’m a member of Northwestern’s 64-person board of trustees. I had no role in any votes or decisions NU made about playing sports in the pandemic.

While much of the blame for the awful about-face goes to the university presidents who chose money and football over sanity and caution, new Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren also contributed greatly to this public relations nightmare. This is a man who clearly is in way over his head. The poor guy was outmaneuvered by a few loud-mouth football coaches, for heaven’s sake. No matter how he explains it, it’s clear that he and the league flip-flopped so Ohio State can try to win a national title and the league can still make lots of money off the backs of 18-to-22-year-olds in the middle of a pandemic.

As we move into October and November, into what the experts say will be our worst days as COVID combines with the flu, the stops and starts of the conferences that are trying to play now tell us there are likely to be postponements and perhaps cancellations of Big Ten games. 

Maybe some teams will get through a full season. Perhaps others will have to stop after a game or two, or miss games in the middle. Hopefully no one will get sick or spread COVID to others. We’ll see. This is the potential chaos the Big Ten chose when it decided to sell its soul for a few football games.

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