Storm of questions faces Big Ten, college football

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Back in mid-August, when Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren announced the conference’s decision to postpone all fall sports, including football, a torrent of questions — rhetorical and genuine alike — poured in from college football fans across the country.

How will football programs survive after collectively losing out on hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue? Will players receive an extra year of eligibility? Would a spring football season really be viable?

At protests outside of the Big Ten’s headquarters, angry parents, players and fans seemed to be asking, “Are you kidding me?” “Have y’all lost your minds?” and “Do you actually expect us to go without college football?”

After a 36-day downpour of objections and protests, the conference reversed its initial decision and announced that football will be played in the fall after all, albeit a few months later than normal, with the season beginning Oct. 24. Plans for rapid, daily antigen testing meant to stop outbreaks within teams before they start played the largest role in the conference’s decision.

Now, in the wake of this huge news for college football fans, two massive questions come to the fore: First, what does the Big Ten’s decision, short schedule and late start mean for the college football landscape and the chance that a Big Ten team makes the College Football Playoff? Second, if the health of players is the main priority, is returning to play really the right decision?

The answer to the first question is straightforward: We have no idea. The conference is set to begin its football season more than a month after three Power Five conferences — the Big 12, SEC and ACC — began their respective seasons. This means that, save game postponements such as the one we saw earlier this week, College Football Playoff contenders such as Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma will all have played between three and five games before Big Ten powerhouses Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin play their first. Where will the playoff selection committee rank a 0-0 Penn State against teams of a similar caliber that are halfway through their schedules?

And with the Big Ten playing an extra-short season — just nine games in total — the playoff selection committee will inevitably face some difficult decisions come December. Will it really keep a 9-0 Ohio State team out of the playoff in favor of an 11-1 ACC runner-up Notre Dame?

Uncertainty doubtlessly remains surrounding playoff and bowl implications. But fans eager to make this college football season as normal as possible are, unsurprisingly, reluctant to admit that even with rapid antigen testing, uncertainty surrounding player health also still abounds.

In the days following the Aug. 11 decision to postpone all fall sports, with the whole college football universe clamoring for answers, Warren cited concerns surrounding the coronavirus. Among them were what exactly the long-term health effects of COVID-19 are and whether or not the conference would be liable for those possible health complications among their student-athletes.

After all, a recent study conducted by Dr. Curt Daniels, the director of sports cardiology at Ohio State, found an alarmingly high rate of myocarditis — a rare disease that causes heart inflammation and, in some cases, cardiac arrest with exertion — in athletes who had contracted COVID-19.

“It’s one thing to have uncertainty about certain items in life. But then it’s another thing when you’re talking about uncertainty for our student-athletes,” Warren said in an interview with The Athletic in August. “I personally feel that I have a responsibility, in my position, to make sure that they have their mental and physical health, their safety, their wellness — not only in words, but in actions.”

As with seemingly all announcements these days, the Big Ten’s August decision to postpone fall sports was always subject to change. Back then, it felt like perhaps the conference would reverse course after some of those concerns surrounding long-term player health were assuaged, after a significant decline in the number of COVID-19 cases nationally or after the announcement of a vaccine.

No such breakthrough occurred. According to the proposed conference schedule, teams are expected to travel to away games every other week for at least nine weeks. There is no vaccine to ensure the health of student-athletes. The long-term health effects of the disease are still poorly understood. And even with frequent testing, players will still inevitably contract the virus and may have to live with the possibly detrimental long-term health effects.

It’s important to remember that while this hurricane of questions seems to be lightening up, the clouds have not parted yet. Hoping our way out of this storm of uncertainty is tempting, but it is equally, if not more, dangerous.

William Cooke covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].