In the five weeks since its presidents and chancellors decided not to have a 2020 fall football season, the Big Ten Conference worked diligently on finding a path to football later in the year, establishing a Return to Competition Task Force that involved athletic directors, coaches and the medical community.
Even with all of that effort answering the questions about rapid testing and the research on the effects of myocarditis, a heart condition, in those athletes who have contracted COVID-19, the decision to reinstate a football season was a difficult one.
Finally, however, the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors agreed that all their medical questions had been answered and announced Wednesday a unanimous vote approving a football season beginning the weekend of Oct. 23 and 24, and going on for a scheduled nine games.
It was quite an about-face from the council’s last vote on Aug. 11, when the chief executives decided 11-3 not to have a fall football season because they did not think it could proceed safely. The vote led to criticism and anger from players, coaches, and parents.
Penn State head coach James Franklin, one of the most-vocal critics of what he called a lack of communication from the Big Ten, issued a statement Wednesday thankful for the chance to play a season.
“We are excited for our guys to have the opportunity to get back to action safely on Oct. 24,” he said. “These last several months have been riddled with uncertainty for our student-athletes, but they have handled it with class and dignity. Our guys have remained relentless in following our COVID-19 protocols and in their preparations to be ready to play football.”
The schedule for the abbreviated season will find teams playing eight consecutive weeks from Oct. 23-24 through Dec. 12. The Big Ten championship game will cap the season on Dec. 19, but the league’s other 12 teams will be matched up that weekend based on their finish in their division – 2 versus 2, 3 versus 3, etc.
“It’s very unique scheduling,” said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, chairman of the task force’s scheduling subcommittee. “It gives everyone an opportunity to play nine games. We should have a schedule laid out later this week.”
It was the task force’s medical subcommittee, cochaired by Penn State vice president of athletics Sandy Barbour and Ohio State football team physician Dr. Jim Borchers, that did the heavy lifting and assured the presidents and chancellors during a lengthy presentation Sunday that a season could be conducted safely.
“We were driven to look at the evidence,” Borchers said Wednesday in a Zoom call with reporters. “I think all of us have done that, and we’ve ended up in a place where we feel comfortable that we have a path forward that’s going to emphasize health and safety. I think and I hope that we’ve been able to put a clear path forward that will be right for the Big Ten Conference.”
The Big Ten will require everyone on the field – players, coaches, trainers, and others – to undergo daily antigen testing, with test results completed and recorded before each practice or game. Protocols also call for COVID-19 positive athletes to undergo comprehensive cardiac testing that include a cardiac MRI to check for signs of myocarditis.
The earliest an athlete can return to game competition is 21 days following a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Borchers explained that it would take a minimum of 14 days from a positive test to complete and evaluate cardiac testing, plus a seven-day rehabilitation period for an athlete to return to his or her activity.
The work of the medical subcommittee convinced Penn State president Eric Barron to change his vote from five weeks ago "based on the extraordinary amount of effort … to create the necessary conditions for a COVID-free arena of play.
“Much has changed,” Barron said in a statement. “Our new approach is data-driven and guided by a chief infection officer to be designated by each institution. Consistent and uniform testing will be ready for the entire Big Ten, managed by the conference, with point-of-care rapid antigen testing six or seven times a week, with results ready at least four hours before every practice and game.”
Borchers said daily antigen testing would start as soon as possible, but no later than Sept. 30. Individual universities will continue with their testing protocols in the meantime.
Penn State, in its weekly report, announced 50 positives out of 859 tests of athletes from Sept. 5 to 11. That follows the previous week’s 48 positives, which resulted in the shutdown of some fall sports but not football.
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said the conference will be "responsible for the structure or the agreements for our testing and for the payment of the testing.
“We feel very comfortable that we’re where we need to be from a testing standpoint and from an agreement standpoint,” he said. “We will have plenty of tests.”
President Donald Trump involved himself in the drive to play Big Ten football this fall, speaking with Warren and issuing a number of tweets supporting it.
After hearing the news that football would be restored, he tweeted:
“Great News: BIG TEN FOOTBALL IS BACK. All teams to participate. Thank you to the players, coaches , parents and all school representatives. Have a FANTASTIC SEASON! It is my great honor to have helped!!!”.