After originally cancelling their college football season due to complications caused by COVID-19, the Big Ten Conference elected to begin their season on Oct. 23.
“We had to go to work, we had to be fluid and show some flexibility,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said to Inside Higher Ed. “Once we reached that point that we felt comfortable going forward … We have now met those standards for our student-athletes to participate.”
Less than two months prior, the presidents of the conference’s schools had voted 11-3 to postpone the college football season. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall,” Warren said in the Big Ten’s Aug. 11 announcement.
But, as with every major collegiate sports decision, there came sweat, tension, tweets and several harshly phrased letters from athletic directors, parents, players and even politicians, including President Donald J. Trump. They demanded for the conference to reconsider its decision. The Big Ten experienced immense public backlash from the decision. It was impossible to ignore demonstrations from coaches like Jim Harbaugh of Michigan, reports of the lawsuit that eight Nebraska football players filed against the conference or the petitions created by Ohio State players to “immediately reinstate the 2020 football season.”
Initially, the presidents stood by their decision. Warren released a statement to the media asserting that “the vote of the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors was overwhelmingly in support of postponing fall sports and will not be revisited.” The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center released a report voicing concerns, including a lack of COVID-19 safe uniforms, limited access to daily testing, questions about the efficacy of contact tracing and even concerns about the physical impacts of contracting COVID-19 on student-athletes.
While conference officials maintained their silence publicly after their initial August announcement, they hired a medical panel to assess how to return to play. They recently released a new plan that supposedly ensures the health and safety of athletes. Currently, the Big Ten has yet to explain what changed their stance. Warren defended the decision during a press conference on Sept. 16, explaining that the Big Ten leaders were able to work out specific COVID-19 and cardiac testing protocols and thresholds for pausing competition if an outbreak were to occur.
It remains unclear if the Big Ten officials had simply succumbed to external pressures. Trump has largely taken credit for helping convince the conference to return to play. “I’m the one who brought back football,” he said in the presidential debate on Tuesday. “By the way, I brought back Big Ten football. It was me, and I’m very happy to do it and the people of Ohio are very proud of me.”