Shannon Ryan: The Big Ten will have to walk a dangerous tightrope to pull off a football season. And even if it trips up, will anyone care?

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A locked section of fencing around the Michigan State football practice field on the campus in East Lansing, Michigan, on August 10, 2020. - Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press/TNS

The Big Ten announced Wednesday that football will resume this fall. Let’s look at the state of life on those campuses.

Ohio State suspended more than 200 students for partying before classes started, breaking COVID-19 restrictions. At least 342 cases at Michigan State prompted a health department recommendation for students to self-quarantine. Wisconsin students are in a two-week lockdown, and classes moved online.

Northwestern decided conditions were too unsafe to allow freshmen and sophomores to live on campus. Penn State and Iowa are among the schools to report more than 1,000 cases.

Knowing this reality on Big Ten campuses, the conference’s university presidents and chancellors still decided to reverse course and proceed with a fall football schedule.

After all, what is reality?

A month ago, ensuring athlete and campus safety meant games must be postponed. On Wednesday, the opposite somehow became true.

The Big Ten will have to execute a tightrope walk in heels with a blindfold to pull this off.

The new schedule crams in eight games in eight weeks, not allowing for an open date and a chance to reschedule postponed games. A 21-day suspension from competition is required for players who test positive. And any team with higher than a 5% positivity rate must shut down for at least a week.

Not mentioned during the Big Ten’s video conference call with reporters Wednesday: Penn State just set a mark for its largest number of positive tests with 50 among athletes.

It’s hard to imagine the Big Ten season coming off without a team having to miss a significant portion. It’s hard to imagine because we’ve already seen it in other conferences.

More than a dozen FBS games were postponed during the first two weekends because of COVID-19 issues. Three Big 12 teams — Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU — had nonconference games postponed last week, while two ACC games (N.C. State-Virginia Tech and Virginia-Virginia Tech) have been postponed.

The Big Ten said presidents and chancellors changed their minds after discussions with the conference’s medical advisers about the widespread availability of rapid testing.

Jeff Mjaanes, Northwestern’s director of sports medicine, said the antigen testing can “detect a level of virus thought to be below the level of infectivity.” Big Ten leaders said MRI cardiac testing alleviates some of the concerns about myocarditis.

These are certainly important steps.

“Medical opinions changed,” Northwestern President Morton Schapiro said on the conference call. “Paul Samuelson, the great economist, was once asked why he changed his mind. And he said, ‘When the facts change, the mind changes.’ “

Sometimes facts don’t change and minds still do.

We’ve gone from shutting down sports leagues at the mere threat of contagion to playing amid outbreaks.

The Midwest has had record numbers of COVID-19 cases recently. Campuses are seeing outbreaks.

Does anyone think 10 or more Ohio State students might gather in late October when the Buckeyes resume play? Think everyone will socially distance when this slice of longed-for normalcy returns to East Lansing, Mich., or State College, Pa.?

Are athletes like those at Rutgers who were part of an outbreak stemming from a party much more sensitive and aware than they were a month ago?

The Big Ten isn’t playing in an NBA-like bubble. It’s unclear if testing will be as effective as the NFL’s has been so far. How do athletes protect themselves from classmates who don’t have the same stringent testing?

The Big Ten — which caved to bullying by vocal parents and their lawyers, as well as President Donald Trump — is counting on it.

And if it’s a mistake? Sadly, the conference has proof it won’t face backlash.

Texas Tech hasn’t received criticism for 75 players testing positive.

Any outrage for LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who hinted at herd immunity as an achievement when he revealed “most” of his team had contracted the coronavirus?

Orgeron made clear where his concerns lie. He said he hopes those players can’t get it again so that they can play. Nothing about players’ families, university workers or community members with whom those athletes might have come in contact. Nothing about the possible long-term effects on the athletes.

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said he won’t release COVID-19 numbers because it could give his opponents an advantage. You know, like hiding that a player has a bum ankle. Why would transparency for the sake of public health take precedence when a win against Kansas could be at stake?

Apparently, this is all part of the game now.

Football players, even the many who lobbied for a return to play, have never been more overtly used as a commodity.

It’s an especially striking decision considering the demographics of football rosters and the inequality that leads to a disproportionate number of Black families affected by the virus.

How much do Black lives matter to universities that have been promoting equality initiatives when they are putting black lives on the frontlines for a nation’s entertainment value and their own financial benefit?

This is all part of the game now. Put on the blinders along with the helmets.

The Big Ten hasn’t yet released its new schedule, but its priorities have been set.

Football sits at the top.


©2020 Chicago Tribune