After a tumultuous six weeks, football is back in the Big Ten.
The Big Ten conference announced Wednesday it will return to competition Oct. 23-24 with stringent medical protocols, which include rapid daily testing and extensive cardiac screening.
A requirement will include student-athletes, coaches, trainers and other individuals that are on the field for all practices and games to undergo daily antigen testing. Test results must be completed and recorded prior to each practice or game. Student-athletes who test positive for the coronavirus through point of contact (POC) daily testing would require a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to confirm the result of the POC test.
In addition, all COVID-19 positive student-athletes will have to undergo comprehensive cardiac testing to include labs and biomarkers, ECG, echocardiogram and a cardiac MRI. Following the cardiac evaluation, student-athletes must receive clearance from a cardiologist designated by the university. The earliest a student-athlete can return to game competition is 21 days following a COVID-19 positive diagnosis.
Daily testing will begin Sept. 30. Teams are able to begin practice immediately for 20 hours per week to prepare for the season, before the start of daily rapid testing.
Eventually, all Big Ten sports will require testing protocols before they can resume competition. Updates regarding fall sports other than football — as well as winter sports that begin in the fall including men’s and women’s basketball, men’s ice hockey, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, and wrestling — will be announced shortly, Big Ten officials said.
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, part of the Big Ten’s Return to Football Task Force Committee, said the schedule will be an eight-plus-one format, with all teams playing nine games. In addition to the Big Ten Championship Game being played on the weekend of Dec. 18-19, the second- through seventh-place teams in each division will cross over to face one another at campus sites. Alvarez said the full schedule will be announced later this week.
“We think it is unique,” Alvarez said. “We wanted to make it meaningful for all of our student-athletes.”
Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour, also on the Big Ten return task force, said there will be no public ticket sale for fans for games, but accommodations may be made for family and friends of family and staff members to have limited fans in the stands.
Wednesday’s announcement comes more than a month after the Big Ten became the first Power Five conference to postpone its fall sports season. On Aug. 11, citing health concerns and the uncertainty of long-term health effects presented by the coronavirus, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren on behalf of the league’s 14 presidents and chancellors made the announcement.
As late as Aug. 19, Warren released a letter saying the Big Ten’s decision to postpone the fall season would not be revisited. But the first-year Big Ten commissioner said on a conference call Wednesday that advances in testing and cardiac screening now make it safer for student-athletes to play football.
“We are so much better and so much more prepared to play than we were 43 days ago,” Warren said.
Northwestern president Morton Schapiro said the vote among Big Ten presidents was unanimous in its return to play. Schapiro said he was swayed to change his vote based on a presentation from the Big Ten medical advisory committee Saturday.
“It had nothing to do with lawsuits or political pressure,” Schapiro said. “It had to do with the advice we received from medical experts.”
The aftermath of the Big Ten’s initial decision top postpone the season quickly became consequential. Conference players and coaches, players’ parents and fans voiced their collective disapproval on social media.
Just days before the league’s decision to postpone the fall sports season, Nebraska head coach Scott Frost suggested his team might look elsewhere to play this fall if the football season was shelved.
“We want to play no matter who it is or where it is,” Frost said at the time. “So, we’ll see how all those chips fall. We certainly hope it’s in the Big Ten. If it isn’t, I think we’re prepared to look for other options.”
In the days following the Big Ten’s decision, momentum was built to pressure Warren and league presidents to provide transparency of the 11-3 vote in favor of postponement. It was later learned leadership from Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa dissented.
“It is unclear to me whether or not there was a vote about it,” Barbour told reporters in August. “Nobody’s ever told me there was. So I just don’t know whether there actually was a vote by the chancellors and presidents.”
Randy Wade – father of Ohio State player Shaun Wade – led a protest in August in front of the Big Ten offices in Rosemont, Illinois. He was joined by a couple dozen other protesters. Shaun Wade this week opted out of the 2020 sesaon.
The Big Ten battle grew political in August when President Donald Trump tweeted he spoke with Warren with the hopes of prodding league leaders into action.
The Big Ten’s decision was met with a legal challenge as well, as eight Nebraska players filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ruling, calling it “arbitrary and capricious” and claiming it would hurt their future career opportunities. Through discovery, the suit led to the Big Ten disclosing its 11-3 vote to postpone the season.
The decision had an economic impact in Big Ten college towns throughout the Midwest, which have been struggling since the start of the pandemic. The average economic impact for home football games at Indiana, according to Greater Bloomington chamber of commerce figures, ranges from $4 million to $6 million per game.
Meanwhile, college football in the ACC, Big 12 and Sun Belt conferences started last weekend. The SEC is set to start its season Sept. 26.
Challenges already have arisen with teams managing the pandemic. Nine games were postponed last weekend due to COVID-19 issues involving teams, including Baylor vs. Louisiana Tech, Oklahoma State vs. Tulsa and SMU vs. TCU. This coming week, a number of games already have been postponed, including Virginia Tech vs. Virginia, Memphis vs. Houston, BYU vs. Army and Arkansas State vs. Central Arkansas.
On Tuesday, Louisiana-based newspaper, The Advocate, shared that LSU football coach Ed Orgeron told reporters, “I think most, not all of our players, but most of our players have caught it. So hopefully they won’t catch it again, and hopefully, they’re not out for games.”
Although COVID-19 infections are declining nationally, the Midwest has emerged as a hot spot this fall, with positivity rates rising in three Big Ten states — Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio. Earlier this month, IU had 30 fraternity and sorority houses placed under quarantine after the school reported an 8.1% positivity rate in students living within those houses.
Wisconsin football is currently on a workout pause due to a COVID-19 outbreak, while Rutgers, Indiana, Northwestern, Ohio State, Maryland and Michigan State also were forced to pause football workouts due to outbreaks within their teams.