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Big Ten’s great dilemma for the 2020-2021 athletic season and Rutgers’ place in it

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The impact of COVID-19 on life as we know it, both on and off the field, will continue for quite some time.

Big Ten athletes and coaches now get free access to the Calm app making good on Commissioner Kevin Warren’s commitment to mental health Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

While life is always unpredictable by nature, we are all living in a state of flux possibly more than any other time in our lifetimes. With the global pandemic COVID-19, there are no guarantees in regard to normal life resuming anytime soon. And it will certainly be a “new” normal as well. With America being so great in size, it was only a matter of time before certain states began operating differently than others, based on which are affected the most by this disease. Now that it’s happening, there are many questions about how that will impact the beginning of college sports in the fall.

Rutgers, of course, finds itself in the second most impacted state in the country and neighbors New York State, the top ranked state in regard to number of positive cases of COVID-19. So as Rutgers fans, it’s fair to be very concerned that the upcoming college athletics fall season will be greatly impacted.

Earlier this week, the Big Ten conference made several announcements. First, they extended the suspension of all team activities to June 1st and stated things would be re-evaluated at that time. They also announced several mental health initiatives, including a cabinet made up top medical personnel from all 14 institutions within the conference.

From a sports fan perspective, the biggest news was what new commissioner Kevin Warren said in regard to decision making regarding the upcoming fall season. In an interview with CNBC this past Wednesday, Warren made two important points. Medical experts will be the driving force behind decisions made by the Big Ten and he expects to be able make a decision about fall sports specifically in the next 6-8 weeks.

Thankfully, the Big Ten has a commissioner that is making sense. Anyone who makes statements that claim what will happen with college football and beyond this fall is simply making giant assumptions. Every week has brought new information, data and decisions across the country since the outbreak of COVID-19 began in early March. Making a firm decision in May about anything, let alone athletics, for three months from now is silly.

Andy Staples and Stewart Mandel of The Athletic wrote this week that we could be headed towards a fall season that begins for some schools but not others. Conferences like the SEC and Big XII have many of its schools reside in states that have begun to re-open from a lockdown period. The Big Ten is quite the opposite right now, as six of the fourteen members reside in six of the seven most impacted states. Four others are in states in the top 16.

Perhaps Penn State football head coach James Franklin didn’t check those statistics before making the following statement to Heather Dinich of ESPN. “I can’t imagine that right now we’re all going to open at the same time. If the SEC, for example, opens up a month earlier than the Big Ten, and the Big Ten is able to open up and 12 of the 14 schools, if two schools can’t open, I don’t see a conference — any conference — penalizing 80% or 75% of the schools because 25% of them can’t open. To me, unless there’s a level playing field and the NCAA comes out and says that no one’s opening before this date to try to help with that, what you really end up doing is you end up hurting the conference. Say two or three of the schools in our conference that are ranked in the top 10 have the ability to open and a couple schools don’t, and you make the decision to hold the entire conference back, you’re hurting the conference as a whole in terms of your ability to compete.”

Maybe Franklin will be correct in that thought, but it seems unwise for him to bring it up. Pennsylvania currently has the sixth most cases in the country. While Penn State is in the middle of the state and those numbers certainly come more from larger cities in Pennsylvania, Happy Valley basically becomes its own city when school is in session. And most of it’s out of state students come from the hard hit northeast.

Perhaps Franklin was delivering a subliminal message that if Rutgers can’t open, due to New Jersey ranked no. 2 in regard to most COVID-19 cases, don’t penalize the blue bloods of the conference like his Nittany Lions. However, only RU, Illinois and Northwestern reside in states more affected than the one PSU does. So it’s certainly possible based on his thought that his own program and school would be in the same position, left out. Maybe sit this issue out, coach Franklin, and leave it to the University Presidents and Commissioner to make these decisions.

Of course, a lot will depend on how the states that have re-opened are affected moving forward by COVID-19. If the number of cases doesn’t spike and progress continues to be made, that will be be a positive sign for the entire country. However, Florida just had its deadliest week since the start of the spread of this coronavirus, which coincided with the first week of its re-opening. Hopefully, that trend doesn’t continue, but it’s fair to be concerned it won’t get better with the state trying to resume business on some level.

Never before has the phrase “bigger than sports” been applicable. At the end of the day, whether college athletics and professional sports resume anytime soon is far less important than protecting the health and wellbeing of Americans. In regard to our fan allegiance, athletic director Pat Hobbs made it clear in speaking with him here that the leaders of New Jersey, Rutgers, and the Big Ten will have the best interest of its citizens and student-athletes in mind.

The general marker for what will happen will revolve around whether universities re-open on time this fall. As Jerry Carino pointed out this week, schools re-opening doesn’t necessarily mean doing so at 100% capacity. It’s likely that students that can attend remotely will probably do so in at least some capacity. But if schools re-opened to the point for students that need to be physically present in areas like science and engineering, than having student-athletes back as well could work. The idea of only having student-athletes back and no others would be inappropriate at best and egregious at worst.

The pink elephant in the room of course is the loss of television revenue due to football’s schedule being modified or worst case, being cancelled altogether, could be catastrophic for any power five program that is affected. The Big Ten rakes in more than any conference and how would they handle a scenario where only part of the conference is able to play remains to be seen. However, it seems counterproductive to leave schools out in the cold financially that couldn’t re-open, as the impact on its athletic department long term would be severe and thus weaken the league overall.

The Big Ten certainly has a major dilemma on it’s hands, that much is sure. How commissioner Warren and it’s 14 member institutions handle this challenge will be fascinating to watch. It seems unlikely that the current 12 game football schedule, including nine conference games, will take place at this point. How it would be reduced and when it would take place are key questions that Warren will have to answer soon enough.

For a school like Rutgers, geography is certainly a challenge in being able to play a full conference schedule in any fall sport. And unfortunately, winter sports could be impacted in some way as well.

It could evolve into a fan friendly schedule that sees many former Big East foes play each other in sports that do take place in the coming year or beyond. Hobbs said as much in our recent talk, mentioning the intent to play Seton Hall more often in many sports, as well as Princeton. James Kratch of NJ Advance Media speculated that Rutgers men’s basketball could play Villanova and Syracuse next season in league organized games against the Big East and ACC. Limiting travel, particularly via planes, seems likely a priority moving forward, at least in the next year.

How the Big Ten adjusts its conference slates in all sports and advises its members to fill out its schedules will be compelling. At a minimum, count on Rutgers playing Penn State and Maryland in any Big Ten competitions that do take place in the near future.

Other concerns regarding any sports that do actually resume this coming school year aside from public health issues related to COVID-19 is the quality of play and potential rise of injuries, particularly in football. Of course, how fans will even be involved remains to be seen as well. A nightmare scenario is certainly possible: Potentially the best Rutgers men’s basketball team since the 1976 Final Four team, coming off the best home record in program history, could play all of next season’s home games in an empty RAC.

Whatever happens, it’s seems safe to say in early May that life as we know it for a typical fall season at a minimum, both with sports and in general life, will be very different. However, it’s also too early to know what those changes will actually be. Now all we can do is ponder the many questions that exist and the uncertainty that exists. As I usually do, I’ll spend this time listening to the great Tom Petty, who rightly sings “the waiting is the hardest part.”