Commentary: Big Ten football is suddenly 'safe'? In the reopening debate for sports and entertainment, that word is a lie

©Chicago Tribune

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images North America/TNS

As the Big Ten conference announced its about-turn on fall football Tuesday, the Northwestern University coach was ecstatic. “I’m excited for our guys to have a safe opportunity to play the game they love,” said Pat Fitzgerald.

That was an absurd statement that should have been challenged on the spot.

Big Ten football is not “safe.” Never was, never has been, never will be. And it certainly did not make the eye-popping transition from perilous overnight, just because a bunch of university administrators about-faced, thanks to a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle pressures from coaches, players, fans, networks and, of course, campus bean-counters. Not to mention the competitive heat of watching rival leagues dominate the September airwaves.

In the great re-opening debate, as impacting sports, theaters, concerts, festivals and the rest, the sooner we get past the word “safe,” the better.

This kind of binary, non-relativistic thinking is holding back intelligent, considered decision-making in this country and contributing to the political polarization of responses to the coronavirus and its relationship to the recovery of our lives.

Had Fitzgerald been speaking the actual truth, he would have pointed to the Big Ten’s rhetorically tortured declaration that it had “adopted significant medical protocols including daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and an enhanced, data-driven approach when making decisions about practice/competition” and said it reduced the risk of playing football in Midwestern stadia to one that he and his fellow educators now found acceptable. Or had been told that they needed to find acceptable to hold their jobs.

Who knows? Views probably vary from coach to coach because our personal tolerance for risk varies, which is why some of us are shopping, eating out and partying on our stoops while others of us have barely left our basements since March.

But ah, yes, the “data-driven” approach.

Behold a fiendishly heinous compound adjective, another curse of the pandemic, that’s now used to cover up personal desires and quests for power and money. “Data-driven” is intended to shut down any opposing arguments, as if some subset of data cannot be harnessed in service of the pre-existing values and interests of the person with the reigns.

It has a close cousin, too: “listen to the science,” as if scientists have acted in agreement during the current crisis. As all scientists know, values and politics and prejudices and monied interests cannot be separated out of their field. Not now, not ever. Even if you think you are listening to the science, a wise head still mentally corrects for those things and filters the information through an individual’s value system. Scientific purity is impossible.

Those realities don’t mean that the Big Ten is wrong to restart, although that decision certainly is arguable, and already being argued. And it sure is easy to be thoroughly cynical about these things, given the ongoing existence of online schooling, which has a well-documented devastating impact, not to mention city quarantining regulations and the limitations on public gatherings that have devastated dining and the arts.

And it is worth remembering that not many weeks ago, you likely couldn’t go to the funeral of a beloved friend.

When they write the book on this thing, these inconsistencies will stun future generations and offer a reminder of our pathetic inability to make consistent decisions in a novel situation without regard to existing power structures.

But that ship now has sailed. The Big Ten is back. Long live the Big Ten.

We now find ourselves in a situation where football, for a variety of good, bad, hopeful and totally infuriating reasons, has led the way toward the reopening of public spectacles and, in practical terms, reopening in general. Other sports seem cowed by the situation, even as they have struggled along. But football and its fans would not be denied and the powers that be, bowed.

Football has won, where the entertainment and events industry largely has failed, as if these sectors were, in fact, different and distinct. If someone had speculated in March that football would return before high schools, they would have been branded as cynical absurdists.

Except by those who understand this country better than most.

So if you are on the side of opening things up more quickly and resuming economic and cultural activity, Tuesday was a very good day. If you’re on the side of hunkering down and waiting for the vaccine, there now are more reasons to never exit your front door.

In actuality, this a very complex set of issues and, contrary to how most people talk, good arguments can be made on both sides. College football has always come with risks — to players, especially. Anyone who plays it, or watches it, has to make peace with that. When entertainment venues re-open, they will not be suddenly “safe.” Workers and audiences alike will be asked to weigh their risk tolerance and will arrive at different conclusions.

This is good. This is part of living and interacting in an advanced and pluralistic society. We all have to do it every day, pandemic or no pandemic. There is no need to savage the opposing view on Facebook. It only hurts the truth.

Of course, truth is hard to find these days. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, now a trusted voice, initially told the American people that masks had no benefit. His motivations were honorable: he wanted to protect the limited supply for front-line workers.

But it still wasn’t the truth. And everyone from coaches to theater owners to public officials needs to remember that it’s far better to give people as full a picture as you can, and, as far as you are able, let them make free and intelligent choices for themselves.

There is no other way forward.



Chris Jones is a Tribune critic. [cjones5@chicagotribune\.com](


©2020 Chicago Tribune