The Big Ten is in the middle of a full blown crisis. The speculation is rampant as to when the league will actually play football after postponing all fall sports last month. There is a perceived lack of transparency between the decision makers and coaches, several of whom including Ohio State’s Ryan Day, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, and Penn State’s James Franklin have ratcheted up public pressure and have been critical of Commissioner Kevin Warren. Six states have had lawmakers submit letters urging the conference to reverse their decision. There is also a September 12 deadline to submit documents to the court in regard to a lawsuit brought on by 8 Nebraska players. Not to be outdone is the President of the United States Donald Trump, who continues to publicly push for the Big Ten to play this fall.
This is in addition to the fact that Wisconsin announced on Thursday that the football and hockey teams would pause workouts for the next two weeks and that 83 student-athletes have tested positive since returning to campus in June. Their campus is also placing restrictions on regular students as well to slow the spread of COVID-19 on the Madison campus.
Maryland has shutdown all athletic activities after 46 student-athletes tested positive across ten sports. Penn State has shut down some sports as well, while Iowa football recently resumed activities after a break. This all comes after six football programs had to stop offseason workouts over the summer.
This includes Rutgers, as 28 football players and multiple staff members reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. The athletic department just announced on Wednesday that four student-athletes across men’s lacrosse, wrestling, and gymnastics, as well as a staff member tested positive.
Despite all of this, public pressure mounts and the groans grow louder for the Big Ten to resume football in October. It’s no coincidence the noise is increasing as the weekend ahead marks the kickoff of the 2020 season for the three major conferences that are playing this fall, the SEC, ACC, and Big XII.
The Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein reported on Thursday night that a vote between Presidents is “more likely” to take place next week than by the end of this week. The heads of the 14 member institutions are waiting for the medical subcommittee of the Return to Competition Task Force to report back on four key issues related to COVID-19: rapid testing; contact tracing; heart issues; the increase in cases in several Big Ten states and schools themselves.
The bottom line is that unless the task force provides answers significantly different from the information the conference used to decide to postpone fall sports in August, the Big Ten will remain on the sidelines as the leaves hit the ground.
Greenstein indicated the initial vote among Presidents was a resounding 11-3 in favor of not playing. If the conference has any hope of playing in 2020, many have to change their minds in the upcoming vote.
On Thursday night, brand new Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway spoke out publicly about the situation in an exclusive interview with NJ Advance Media’s Steve Politi. He was clear in his belief that waiting until the spring semester is the best course for the conference to take, citing more time is needed to “learn about the science, different kinds of tests and potential vaccines.”
Holloway, who played football at Stanford, addressed the current drama in the league regarding the decision to play by stating, “I know other universities are facing unique pressures in the other direction. I get that. That’s just where I am right now, We’ll hope for the best, frankly. No president, whether they’re pushing to start tomorrow or in January, none of us wants to risk our students. There are different levels of comfort and confidence about how we can move forward.”
He was confident in his reasoning and decision making. He also touched on a point that has been surprisingly absent from most public debate about playing this fall. The United States has seen a spike in cases after Memorial Day and July 4th at a time when the country had more restrictions in place overall. With universities and some K-12 schools across the nation reopening, COVID-19 isn’t projected to dissipate by any significant margin this fall. While the Big Ten is taking a lot criticism for not playing right now, how the seasons within the SEC, ACC and Big XII ultimately unfold will help determine public perception of their decision long term.
The Rutgers President addressed it by saying “If I’m wrong because I was erring on the side of safety, I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t think I’m wrong, though. I just don’t think it. And if I had to put money down, we’re going to see some radical changes within a month — no later than October. I’m really worried about what we’re heading toward, on just college campuses in general, not just sports. It’s deeply concerning.”
Holloway continued to explain his thought process and why he remains firm in his decision. He stated, “ I’m going to come to this in a different way. The virus has revealed things that many of us have known to be true for a long time, but now we can’t hide from that fact. And when it comes to, what is the value proposition of college football across the country? The virus has revealed the truth here about how different conferences are navigating that space. And I’m very happy to be in the Big Ten.”
What’s unfolded these last few weeks in the Big Ten has turned into a full fledged circus. Social media has been the fuel to the fire for public pressure and speculation.
Coaches want to play because that’s their purpose and passion. They mostly are not used to being told no, especially without being in the loop on the decision making process.
Athletic Directors have to worry about keeping their entire department afloat despite a projected $50-$100 million in lost revenue by the cancellation of football this fall. Minnesota just announced on Thursday they were cutting four sports and eight positions within its athletic department. Iowa had cut several sports previously this summer as well. It’s likely more Big Ten schools will have to do the same.
Presidents have bigger issues than sports to worry about. They can’t view the decision to play this fall as an independent one. They have to weigh the entire situation related to the impact COVID-19 is having on its institution.
While not every Rutgers fan will agree with Holloway’s assessment that President Trump’s attempts to revive Big Ten football this fall is simply “cheap politics”, there is one thing we should all be happy about. Rutgers has a President who is confident in his decision making and unlike the majority of his peers across the Big Ten, isn’t afraid to speak out in defense of it.
Holloway seems well prepared for the immense challenges that he faces at a time when the school was already in a budget crisis before COVID-19 changed daily life for us all. For Rutgers fans, whether you agree with the conference playing this fall or not and his role in that decision, it should be reassuring to have a President that isn’t afraid to lead.