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Big Ten fumbling at the goal line with fall sports decision

After the Presidents of each conference school reportedly met this past weekend, an opportunity to lead by example is slipping away.

Quick Lane Bowl - Central Michigan v Minnesota Photo by Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

We are midway through the second week of August and the Big Ten conference is still huddling about how to proceed with fall sports. Operating with cautious optimism this late spring and early summer made sense due to the constantly evolving nature of the impact that COVID-19 is having in this country. However, after five months of the United States battling this global pandemic and it remaining major national health crisis, it seemed more than wishful thinking when the league announced the conference only schedule for football last week.

The reality of the situation appears to be sidelined due to the devastating financial impact cancelling fall sports, specifically football, will have on all 14 institutions within the Big Ten. It’s been reported each school could lose an estimated $50-100 million dollars if the football season is cancelled.

Obviously, it’s not an easy decision when punting on the season could permanently alter the way Big Ten athletic departments are comprised moving forward. However, six programs have had to shut down offseason workouts this summer due to positive COVID-19 cases. Rutgers had to recently quarantine the entire program after an outbreak occurred that reportedly resulted in 28 players and multiple staff members testing positive for the coronavirus.

It simply isn’t realistic to believe that once practices began in earnest and teams from different states played games against one another on a weekly basis that preventing the spread of COVID-19 would be any easier or more successful. It’s in part why the advice and counsel of the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee advised non-contact practices on an indefinite basis this past weekend. The health concerns and liability risk outweigh any reason to continue, even the severe loss of revenue that will occur. Especially when it seems unlikely the medical experts will advise anything different anytime soon.

So after announcing a 10 game schedule just one month before it was set to begin and then restricting practices to a level that would be impossible to properly prepare for the season, it seemed like the conference was finally coming to its senses this weekend when the Presidents of each institution reportedly came together for a meeting to discuss the fate of the fall sports season.

Unfortunately, it appears that the play clock is set to expire and the Big Ten decision makers still haven’t even gotten into formation. Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports has been reporting on the talks and as of Sunday night a decision had yet to be made.

It’s understandable the Big Ten wants to have as unified a front as possible before making a decision of the gravity it’s considering. The potential to move the football season to the spring as well as the conference taking out a significant financial loan from banks are options that could provide as best a solution that seems possible. Perhaps those aspects in regard to a plan B when cancelling fall sports still needs to be fully worked out. However, if the reported reason Thamel stated of waiting for other conferences to join the Big Ten in cancelling fall sports, it’s disappointing.

The conference has always touted being elite both on and off the field. Athletic excellence across all sports has been the normal for decades in the Big Ten. From an academic perspective, The Big Ten Academic Alliance brokers collaboration among these prominent research universities, thirteen of which are members of the prestigious AAU.

In a moment when the Big Ten could take a bold step, but one that feels morally correct, it appears to be waiting for backup from other power five conferences before making a historic decision, despite a reported 12-2 vote in favor of cancelling the season. (Editor’s note: a Big Ten spokesman denied a vote took place on Monday.)

That’s why failing to seize an opportunity to lead the way, one that ultimately feels the only responsible decision to be made, is so disappointing. Does announcing along with another power five conference like the PAC-12 soften the blow financially? Of course not. Criticism comes with making historic decisions, but waffling and keeping student-athletes in limbo and potentially at risk because it might help from a public relations standpoint seems irresponsible.

Back in March, the conference had Rutgers and Michigan on the court warming up for a second round game in the Big Ten Tournament before ultimately cancelling the event at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. It seemed like an avoidable risk in waiting to that point at the time, but to be fair there was little understanding about the coronavirus at that time. However, five months later the conference has had enough time to make a timely decision that puts the well-being of all involve above all else. We are still waiting.

The writing is on the wall in bright neon lights the size of the Big House regarding the fate of fall sports within the conference. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Big Ten appear to be fumbling away an opportunity to set an example for the rest of college sports and do the right thing before anyone else. Hopefully, they can still convert on fourth down.

Update: The Big Ten became the first power five conference to postpone all fall sports on Tuesday.