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Does Spring Football in the Big Ten make sense?

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After the conference cancelled fall sports this week, more questions remain than answers.

Indiana v Purdue

What a long, strange week it’s been.

From a Rutgers perspective, the only definitive thing we know at this moment is that there will be no sports played this fall within the Big Ten. Aside from that, there are only questions about what is next with no definitive answers as of yet.

Will fall sports, most importantly football, be played in the spring instead?

Will winter sports take place on a normal calendar schedule? That seems highly unlikely at this point. So does that mean basketball and wrestling begin in January?

How will all fourteen athletic departments within the Big Ten decide to operate moving forward after each are expected to fall short of anywhere between $50-$100 million in revenue with football not being played this autumn?

On Wednesday, the NCAA Division I Council recommended to Division I Board of Directors that “student-athletes impacted by the coronavirus pandemic an extension of their five-year period of eligibility and an additional season of competition if they participate in 50% or less of the maximum number of competitions allowed in each sport under NCAA rules.” However, will it actually get approved and how will conferences and individual schools handle this situation if it does? If seniors remain an extra year, how does that affect rosters and incoming recruits? Can schools flip the bill for expanded rosters coming off a historic financial hit with a postponed season?

That’s a lot to digest and ponder.

Let’s first focus on the idea of spring football and delve into the other subjects in question in other articles.

Spring football sounds great on paper, but the logistics involved to pull it off are not easy at all. Of course, the Big Ten institutions would love to recover at least some of its billion dollar plus loss by salvaging a shortened season beginning in January or February. An eight game scenario seems to be the one being discussed the most publicly, at least by coaches, including Ohio State’s Ryan Day and Purdue’s Jeff Brohm.

Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway spoke about the possibility of spring football on NPR radio on Wednesday and said the following: “The spring season will be possible. The logistics behind it is something that we’re going to work overtime now to figure out. I actually think that TV networks are going to be starved for original content. And while we won’t ever have done something like this before in college football, I think there will be a real opportunity in this moment to showcase our towns across the Big Ten in the spring. Now, saying it’s possible and executing it are two different things. But it’s too early to say that we can’t pull this off.”

It’s certainly possible and would be welcomed by fans for sure. However, there are many challenges involved, aside from the actual logistics of making it happen.

The biggest assumption with the entire concept of a spring season is that the global pandemic COVID-19 would have subsided enough by January for it to even be feasible. On Thursday, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield warned that we could experience the “worst fall in US public health history.” Even if that doesn’t occur, flu season approaching at the same time that COVID-19 continues to spread in this country doesn’t give confidence things will be dramatically better. I hope they will but it’s entirely too early to know.

If six Big Ten teams had to shut down voluntary workouts this summer, including Rutgers, before even beginning training camp for the season due to COVID-19 related issues, it seems likely similar disruptions would at least be a major risk whenever all fourteen programs began preparing full-time for a spring season.

Setting health risks from COVID-19 aside, one aspect that has been underplayed all summer is the physical issues likely to result for players after not having any practice time so far in 2020. If the fall season had actually taken place, the odds for a greater volume of injuries were high. Fast forward to 2021 when it’s possible that the Big Ten could play two separate seasons in one calendar year. Physically, that would be asking a lot of the players, all of which are amateurs and student-athletes who are on the precipice of fighting for greater rights and compensation long term.

One of the most successful coaches in college football history feels the physical toll is too much. When asked about the possibility of spring football on BTN this week, former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said “No chance. You can’t ask a player to play two seasons in a calendar year. The body, in my very strong opinion, is not made to play two seasons within a calendar year. That’s 2,000 repetitive reps and football’s a physical, tough sport. So I really don’t see that happening.”

The fact that Meyer was so matter of fact about the subject is telling, considering he is still an employee of Ohio State as an assistant athletic director. The Buckeyes were vocal in wanting to play this fall even after the season was postponed, forcing athletic director Gene Smith to issue a statement that the school stood by the Big Ten’s decision but also stated a desire to play in the spring. This was one day after Meyer offered his thoughts on BTN.

Other issues include top players sitting out the spring season due to the NFL draft, not to mention players who opted out this fall could reach the same conclusion in the spring. Weather is certainly a concern being it would be in the dead of winter that a spring season would actually begin.

The biggest sticking point in considering a spring season is whether it’s worth having if it all if it means compromising the 2021 fall season?

We know financially the league and its members hope to recoup some of the revenue with a spring season lost from the fall. Of course it is a significant reason to do so, as the loss of revenue could potentially alter athletic departments in the conference forever. However, is messing with the traditional model of playing in the fall worth it in the long run?

What if somehow a spring season ends up a disaster from a health perspective, both with COVID-19 and injuries? It’s likely the product on the field would be worse if teams enter the season already compromised. We also don’t know how broadcasting rights would be determined in the spring and if it doesn’t go well for those reasons, could it negatively affect the revenue share in the fall? And wouldn’t it be thoroughly embarrassing if the league pushed towards a spring season, only to have to postpone it like the fall if COVID-19 continues to be a major health crisis when the calendar turns to 2021?

While I think the Big Ten absolutely made the right decision to postpone the fall season, it didn’t handle the lead up to that decision nearly as well as it should have. Is the potential fallout of another postponed season worth the potential short term benefits of a spring season? What long term implications would it have on the reputation and value of the Big Ten?

Again, more questions than answers, which is now the new normal during this global pandemic. As a Rutgers fan, nothing is surprising anymore.

Moving forward, it will be a difficult task for the Big Ten to find the right answers and avoid the wrong ones. No matter what happens, the conference is going through an unprecedented time and facing serious issues despite making the right call to postpone fall sports. The next decision the conference makes will be the one that shapes the Big Ten for years to come.