COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State football and the rest of the Big Ten Conference should soon have the clarity they have been seeking since their seasons were canceled a month ago.
Does that mean the Buckeyes and others will receive the answers they want?
According to multiple reports, the Big Ten’s return to competition task force and medical committee made a presentation to the league’s presidential steering committee. The eight presidents and chancellors on that committee — including Ohio State President Kristina M. Johnson — will meet with the other six Sunday to hear the same presentation.
Then, a vote on resuming football this fall would come either from that meeting or in the next day or two, depending on various unnamed sources in those reports. Oct. 17 and 24 were the two dates most often cited as likely restart dates for a fall season ended by an 11-3 vote of the Council of Presidents and Chancellors on Aug. 11.
Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska all voted against cancellation that day. They need six other members of the COPC to switch sides and vote to resume.
• Who from Ohio State serves on the Big Ten committees that decide when football returns?
Ohio State head team physician Dr. James Borchers co-chairs the medical committee and will be heavily involved in making the presentation. He and his colleagues will need to demonstrate what medical advances or changes since Aug. 11 now make it safe for teams to resume full-contact practice and begin playing games?
There is a case to be made that teams can resume full football activities, but it is not an open and shut one.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
• Advances in rapid testing: In the past two weeks, both the Pac-12 and Big 12 Conferences struck partnerships with Quidel Corporation to supply rapid antigen testing. So far, the Big Ten has not yet announced a similar arrangement. Nebraska announced this week it obtained its own Sofia-2 Analyzer machine from Quidel and will soon conduct rapid-response, point-of-care antigen testing.
Such testing availability was reported to have been a topic of conversation between President Trump and Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren in their Sept. 1 phone call. The White House made a deal late last month to obtain 150 million of Abbott’s rapid coronavirus tests.
Some medical experts were skeptical of the limitations of testing earlier this summer. Tests that could provide quick, accurate results on game day mornings were not yet available. That is changing, and if the Big Ten secures its own supply, formerly wary presidents and chancellors might be encouraged to move forward.
• Myocarditis concerns addressed: In the days leading up to the Aug. 11 vote, the COPC likely read the multiple reports about a potential connection between COVID-19 and myocarditis — a potentially deadly heart condition if undetected.
They also saw the preliminary results of an Ohio State study on the same subject. That study was published Friday, and it showed cardiac MRIs can be used to determine when athletes who have recovered from COVID-19 are safe to return to competition.
In the study of 26 Ohio State athletes who tested positive for COVID-19, four showed signs of myocarditis based on cardiac MRI criteria. Eight others had evidence of scar tissue suggestive of prior myocarditis or “normal athletic adaptation of the heart,” according to the study’s authors. (COVID-19 could not be ruled out as a cause of that damage.)
Other doctors and scientists have said myocarditis deserves attention, but should not be the sole reason teams or conferences do not play during the pandemic.
• Other conferences are playing: The Big Ten acted first among all conferences in canceling fall sports. Perhaps the COPC expected other Power 5 conferences to follow. Only the Pac-12 did. The ACC and Big 12 opened their seasons Saturday, and the SEC will follow on Sept. 26.
If the COPC were motivated by saving face, it would have likely acted already. Rather, the ensuing weeks of the preseason since the Big Ten vote — and these first two weekends of games and postgame testing — give the COPC additional data to evaluate.
In some states — including Ohio — high school seasons are also underway while the Big Ten school, with all of its resources and organization, is not allowed to play.
It doesn’t and probably shouldn’t matter to the Big Ten that other teams are simply playing. If they are demonstrably playing safely, however, the COPC may take notice.
• The players want to play: This was not always guaranteed — at least not everywhere. Syracuse players notably protested their program’s COVID-19 protocols. Other individual players began opting out of the season in the days after the Big Ten announced its reworked schedule, prior to the fall cancellation.
Then came the organized protests by the Ohio State parents, the lawsuit from multiple Nebraska players, the recent demonstration at Michigan and more. Players at several institutions have questioned why they are not playing and other conferences are.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields collected 300,000 online signatures and took his plea all the way to Good Morning America. A decisive portion of the COPC may still place more weight on the science than those emotional appeals. They players’ willingness to take the risk cannot be completely discounted.
• Encouraging testing results: At one point, it appeared Notre Dame’s football season might capsize before it started.
For the first day of preseason camp on Aug. 12, the Fighting Irish quarantined two players who tested positive and seven others due to contact tracing. A week later, they paused practices as more positive tests came in. When Notre Dame similarly encountered testing spikes when campus opened, one could seriously question whether the team would be able to open the season.
And yet, the Irish beat Duke 27-13 at home on Saturday in front of over 10,000 fans. A week ago, the Irish were down to zerp active cases in their program.
Other programs and campuses have not been so lucky, especially in the Big Ten (see below). But the COPC could take examples such as the Irish as evidence of what OSU President Johnson called a “clean field.” If you can prevent anyone with COVID-19 from taking the field — in practice or games — they cannot pass the virus to anyone else.
• White House support: One cannot ignore the political opportunism of President Trump’s involvement in the Big Ten football discussion. His presidential campaign opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, released an ad blaming Trump’s coronavirus response for the absence of fall sports. Trump responded by offering assistance to the Big Ten — not coincidentally spread across electorally key states in the industrial Midwest — and has not said a peep about the Pac-12.
On the other hand, if the federal government will help the Big Ten obtain the tests it needs to safely play games, can anyone on the COPC deny it helps their teams play safely on Saturdays?
• The established protocols were working: Ohio State experienced a brief workout interruption due to a spike in COVID-19 tests back in July. Other than those six days, the Buckeyes have — as far as we know — practiced uninterrupted.
One of the main complaints heard from OSU’s players and parents — and from others around the Big Ten — is that the cancellation came when established protocols were successfully being followed. On the first day of preseason camp, Day said he did not yet feel safe to play a game. However, he did believe it was safe to begin practice and progress towards full contact.
Iowa and Maryland experienced interruptions recently. Penn State shut down some non-football workouts. Yet it is difficult to know if those would have occurred if the season had progressed as planned and athletes maintained their full incentive for diligence and accountability.
• The winter bubble: Many Big Ten schools, including Ohio State, have announced similar plans for the fall semester. In-person instruction will run up to Thanksgiving break. After that, students will finish the semester remotely. The spring semester will start closer to mid-January, and in some cases will begin with remote classes.
In other words, the academic calendar creates a bubble of sorts for athletes where the greater student population is not on campus. When teams have experienced positive testing spikes they often trace back to off-campus gatherings. No students around helps remove that potential hazard.
• Dire financial consequences: It’s not as if the COPC did not know what an absence of football would do to their athletic departments when they voted in August. Some had already made projections based on limited seating capacity and a reduced number of games.
Since the decision, however, multiple Big Ten programs have announced the cancellation or suspension of sports programs. Minnesota became the latest last week, axing three programs. Other athletic departments have instituted layoffs, furloughs, salary reductions and other cost-cutting measures.
(Ohio State has not yet announced similar cuts, though revenue is expected to fall $130 million short of last year.)
The first vote showed the presidents will not vote for economics over health. Yet if the medical evidence in favor of resumption is compelling, it puts added pressure on presidents and chancellors not to leave tens of millions of dollars on the table for everyone else.
• OSU’s national championship appeal: The argument from players, parents and coaches that Ohio State deserves to take its shot at the national championship certainly riled up the Buckeye fan base. I’m not sure it resonates throughout the league.
Should it? Some teams quite simply do not have competitive incentive to return to play as soon as possible. A mid-October resumption is by far most beneficial to Ohio State. Any chance Penn State once had to contend for the national championship likely disappeared when Micah Parsons (and possibly Pat Freiermuth) opted out.
The Buckeyes’ aspirations are legitimate, however, as are Justin Fields’ Heisman Trophy hopes. Either coming to fruition would help the reputation of the Big Ten as a whole. Let’s face it, some brand repair may be necessary after the past month of confusion and leadership criticism from within.
Should this be the primary reason why Purdue or Rutgers or Michigan State votes in favor of playing? No, but it can be another weight Smith or Johnson or Day leans on to try and move another president off the fence.
REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
• COVID-19 spikes on campus: Wisconsin football entered a two-week pause from workouts last Thursday as part of a campus-wide shutdown due to a spike in positive tests. Maryland’s football program has not resumed practice since pausing on Sept. 3.
Across the Big Ten, local infection rates are trending in the wrong direction.
According to USA Today, the four largest percentage increases in infection rates among college football counties came in those home to Big Ten schools — Michigan State, Wisconsin, Illinois and Penn State.
Champaign County, Illinois, saw a 217 percent increase in its seven-day average to 79.7 cases per 100,000 residents between Sept. 2-9. Michigan State has asked students to self-quarantine through Sept. 26 after a surge of 342 positive tests over two-plus weeks.
Only Iowa’s Johnson County and Minnesota’s Hennepin County saw decreases.
Ohio State’s Franklin County was up 33 percent to 17.5 cases per 100,000 in the same timespan. If you are a president or chancellor wondering if your campus needs to be shut down — as we already saw in Madison — are you voting to move full speed ahead with games in a few weeks?
• Outbreaks in other programs: People complaining about how the rest of college football played without the Big Ten this weekend might have missed some other developments.
Memphis paused football activities Friday. The Commercial-Appeal reported at least 20 positive tests within the program and at least another 20 in quarantine due to contact tracing. The Tigers’ scheduled game against Houston on Saturday was postponed.
The Virginia Tech-Virginia game scheduled for this coming Saturday was postponed due to the Hokies’ coronavirus issues. So was the BYU-Army game scheduled for the same day, for the same reason. Arkansas State upset Kansas State without nine starters, some of whom were absent due to COVID-19.
Yes, college football is being played elsewhere outside the Big Ten. It is not being played without incident.
Many of us argued the Big Ten should have merely delayed a vote on whether or not to play, rather than call everything off on Aug. 11. Part of the reasoning, though, would have been to gather data on what is happening in other conferences.
In his statement criticizing his league’s leadership last week, Day pointed to Saturday’s Clemson-Wake Forest and Notre Dame-Duke games as evidence the Big Ten should also be playing. If those teams escaped the weekend unscathed by COVID-19, his argument will have more weight.
• Lingering myocarditis concerns: The greatest concern with myocarditis is what happens when it is left untreated, and athletes return to strenuous competition unaware of their heart damage. The Ohio State study helps alleviate some of those concerns.
On the other hand, four of 26 athletes tested (15 percent) showed signs of myocarditis confirmed by the cardiac MRIs. Eight others were found to have scar tissue for unknown reasons, so COVID-19 could not be ruled out as a factor.
It is not unreasonable for someone already wary of COVID-19′s long-term medical effects to see the Ohio State study as additional reason for concern.
• Contact tracing: The Big Ten’s own protocols mandate that anyone known to have close contact with another athlete who tests positive must quarantine for 14 days. That standard can quickly cut a massive hole in a roster if the first line of defense does not keep the virus out of a locker room or off the practice field.
We have seen teams in other conferences continue workouts shorthanded. All but four of LSU’s offensive linemen were in quarantine at one point. Texas Tech practiced without 21 players who were in quarantine. All but one member of an Oklahoma position group was affected for a time.
You may be able to practice without an offensive or defensive line, but trying playing a game without one. Logistically, this is a potential catastrophe and one only somewhat mitigated by building idle weeks into a schedule.
Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway told nj.com last week he does not believe other conferences will make it through the fall successfully. (Before you dismiss him as an aloof academic, he also played football at Stanford.) Holloway based that opinion as much on looming outbreaks on college campuses everywhere as any connection to sports.
Why would someone who believes that vote to resume playing, and how many others on the COPC think like Holloway?
• The winter bubble: As much as the winter bubble could provide incentive to play this fall, it could also provide incentive to wait until the winter. By playing the majority of the season when students are already scheduled to be off campus, the chances of an interruption or outbreak decrease.
This option leaves no chance at competing for a CFP berth. Again, that clearly is not high on the list of concerns for the COPC. The Big Ten’s own guidelines for the football scheduling subcommittee — on which Day serves — mentions only ensuring a Big Ten championship game, not national postseason participation.
If enough schools are still averse to playing in October, could this be the unpopular compromise?
• Financial liability: A bout a week before the Big Ten’s cancellation vote, the NCAA said schools could not require athletes to sign COVID-19 liability waivers. Across the country, some schools had done so, either overtly or in some people’s opinions covertly. Ohio State insisted its Buckeye Pledge was only an accountability commitment, not a waiver, though some lawyers had concerns.
Players who choose not to play are free to opt out for the season and retain their scholarship. One could argue no one is being forced to play and schools should not feel threatened by the consequences if players willingly participate in their sport during the pandemic. Some members of the COPC may have lawyers telling them otherwise, however, and this is one factor that could also vary based on the laws in individual states.
• Testing ethics: Yes, the White House may make rapid tests available to the Big Ten. Or perhaps the Big Ten could collectively lock up a supply of them on their own as other conferences have.
There are concerns, however, about the ethics of securing those tests for athletes ahead of the general population — let alone the student population. If test supplies are finite, what is the justification for testing athletes before testing medical workers, first responders, even grocery store workers and other professions who are instrumental in keeping every day life going?
On Twitter and on sports-focused websites, the absence of football holds outsized importance. For Big Ten presidents and chancellors, it is only one issue in a situation stacked with complicated questions.
New Ohio State face masks for sale: Here’s where you can buy Ohio State-themed face coverings for coronavirus protection. A 3-pack is available on Fanatics for $29.99.
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