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Did the Big Ten cave to public pressure, or listen to the evidence? | Mike Jensen

Suggesting the presidents buckled because of their coaches is dismissing the level of arrogance required of a Big Ten president.

Penn State coach James Franklin was outspoken in his support of returning to play this fall.
Penn State coach James Franklin was outspoken in his support of returning to play this fall.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

This time around, the Big Ten made sure it sounded like the Big Ten.

Announcing Wednesday why the conference was reversing course and bringing back football this fall — first kickoff in just over five weeks — the Big Ten had league commissioner Kevin Warren out there, but also a university president, three athletic directors, plus a doctor — the head of the Big Ten’s group of team physicians — who fielded the most questions.

No coaches, interestingly.

Before the announcement began, we already had a full statement from Penn State president Eric Barron explaining why he was for this change after he previously voted against playing.

No, they weren’t all caving to any pressure, they all said, as they explained why risks now would be minimized.

"For me, it wasn’t about political pressure, it wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about lawsuits — it was the unanimous opinion of medical experts,'' said Northwestern president Morton Schapiro, who was on the Zoom call carried live by the Big Ten Network, mentioning that the medical committee was divided five weeks ago. Now, it wasn’t, given advances in rapid testing, primarily.

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A questioner did point out to Schapiro that only two of four classes are back on campus at Northwestern. "I did grapple with that,'' Schapiro said. “At the end of the day, I found the argument — if we can do it safely, there’s no reason not to do it.”

Much of the explanatory language was framed so that you might think this was NASA preparing a Mars launch, not some simple “Let’s play ball” — with basically no fans other than families allowed in stadiums, by the way.

These people had to be able to explain why they were now good with playing football when the Ivy League isn’t returning to play, or the rest of FCS football, or the Mid-American conference, or Division II, or Division III. Or the Pac-12 still, at this point.

The answers to that come down to $$$$.

Not just potential revenue lost, but, more so, the money that will need to be spent to pull all this off. Without the great partners at Fox and without their own the Big Ten Network, without serious TV money coming in, it’s hard to believe this day would be happening. (This is just reality. Some leagues that wanted to play said they couldn’t afford the testing, or it simply wasn’t available.)

To answer the question about whether the Big Ten caved or listened to the science … let’s say, both. But let’s argue Big Ten presidents didn’t cave to their irate coaches. Or the President of the United States, who is keenly aware that the Big Ten’s footprint contains a lot of battleground states. Or protesting parents. That’s underestimating the collective arrogance of this group of campus leaders.

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This was bigger: The presidents probably had thought that if the Big Ten and Pac-12 suspended football, the other Power 5 schools would fall in line. Surely, that school in South Bend would say, “Not worth it.”

Bad bet, it turned out. As one questioner pointed out, “Central Arkansas is playing … .”

Given all that, also take what everyone said Wednesday at face value. These people made a strong-enough case for why they were switching course.

"In medicine very often, when things are unclear, we pause,'' said James Borchers, Ohio State’s team physician and cochair of the competition task force’s medical committee.

If it was the evidence that ruled the day, maybe that in itself suggests the league screwed up last month by not waiting a little longer for such evidence. Except this leadership group made it clear they had no indication on Aug. 11 that proper daily testing would arrive in time for fall play.

In some ways, the Big Ten made it clear it was still being conservative, with strict green, yellow, and red percentages within each football program allowing games to be played, and a 21-day hold on returning to practice for any player who tests positive. With a league-wide cardiac registry being established to share information.

Also, keeping the stadiums basically empty. A straight money grab wouldn’t include that.

"We’ve ended up in a place where we feel comfortable we have a path forward,'' Borchers said.

Interestingly, Ohio State, his school, reportedly was one of the three schools, along with Nebraska and Iowa, that voted to play the first time around. This time, the vote to return was announced as unanimous.

The plan is for an eight-game schedule, then a title game, but not just the East champ playing the West champ, but No. 2 facing No. 2, No. 5 facing No. 5, etc. Everyone gets a ninth game. (Assuming No. 7 East and No. 7 West care to keep going for one more.)

"We wanted to make the season meaningful,'' said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez. “Nine games, we felt, was very meaningful.”

Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour said: "If it was possible to get there safely, we were going to find a way.''.

That statement alone shows the sea shift since the August messaging. On Wednesday, Warren was asked point blank, “Why was your communication so poor?”

The answer, of course, is that lessons have been learned, and the Big Ten is looking forward now, and it’s all about the health and welfare of the players. (The football players, that is. Discussions on the rest of the fall sports would continue this week.)

If the worst fallout from this whole episode turns out to be that it was an epic Big Ten PR disaster, at least that’s the kind of fallout you can survive.