Editorial: Hurrah for Big Ten football (with sensible precautions)

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For fans of Big Ten football, this was shaping up to be a season of agony. The calendar said “kick off” but COVID-19 dashed those plans. Even as other college teams took the field, the Big Ten decided it would be safer to stay on the sidelines. No running, passing, blocking and tackling. Just punting.

The apparent sensibleness of this decision was contradicted by the other major university conferences, which felt they could go ahead with precautions in place. That meant Big Ten students, alumni and fans were left out.

Woe to the Wildcats. Sorry, Spartans. A bummer for the Badgers and Buckeyes. Same for you, U. of I.

Then on Wednesday came reprieve. Upon further review, as referees say, the call to cancel was reversed with Big Ten schools voting unanimously to play an eight-game regular season starting Oct. 23, plus a championship game on Dec. 19.

The season will be tardy and truncated, and it probably will feature unusually challenging weather conditions. The stands will be nearly empty. But it’s college football and we’ll gladly accept it as an exciting distraction during strange times.

The conference is emphasizing strict new health rules. It will require rapid daily tests of athletes, coaches, trainers and anyone else who is on the field for practices and games. Players will be expected to practice social distancing away from the game. Any player found to be infected will undergo extensive cardiac testing and will be held out of games for at least 21 days. If the team positivity rate reaches 2%, practices and meetings will have to be modified; if it reaches 5%, the team won’t be allowed to practice or play for at least a week.

Will these precautions make it possible for a semi-normal season to take place? We certainly hope so. Some of the schools that are already playing have had some bumps. Several games have been postponed because of COVID-19 clusters.

But given all the workouts, practices and games that have taken place among the schools that already are competing, this record doesn’t seem alarming. Nothing is entirely safe in this pandemic, or in a brutal contact sport. But the experience in other conferences suggests that the risk can be kept within reasonable bounds.

That risk of the virus has to be balanced against the cost to student-athletes of not being allowed to play. Over the summer, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields started a petition to let the season proceed. “Don’t let our hard work and sacrifice be in vain,” it said. Parents of players held a protest at the conference’s Rosemont headquarters.

For the top athletes, getting to compete may be the difference between getting the chance to play in the NFL and not — or signing a big contract instead of a smaller one.

For many others, it may be the last chance to take part in the game they love and have toiled for years for the chance to play at the highest collegiate level.

The universities obviously have a great deal at stake financially. Football brings in millions of dollars annually to each school, much of it from broadcasting revenues. Nebraska football accounted for $96.1 million in 2019, 71% of the athletic department’s total revenue, the Tribune reported.

Money cannot be the deciding factor, though, and the safety protocols suggest the right balance is being put in place.

By delaying this long, the Big Ten has the advantage of being able to observe how other schools and conferences manage amid the pandemic. If things go well elsewhere, it can proceed with some confidence. If COVID-19 ends up sidelining hundreds of athletes and causing games to be postponed or canceled, the Big Ten has to be ready to pull the plug.

For now, the start of the Big Ten football season beckons. And that’s something to cheer about.


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