Big Ten changes course on football — but why?

by | Sep 17, 2020 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

If there was any doubt as to whether college football was the tail or the dog when it comes to Big Ten universities, we now know the answer.

Wag, wag. Ruff, ruff. The Big Ten reversed field Wednesday as fast as a greyhound chasing a loose rabbit, veering away from safety, security and science, and running toward the seductive daylight of risk, rah-rah and revenue. Never mind their firm decision last month to postpone the season. They will play football this fall.

Wag, wag. Ruff, ruff.

If it sounds like I’m being critical, I am.

Not about the money, although this is clearly about the money. The Big Ten makes hundreds of millions of dollars from football broadcast rights fees every year, and they hated watching teams like Clemson and Notre Dame collecting similar money last weekend while they sat at home playing it safe. The obscene revenue that football brings in not only pays for the sport, but for facilities, libraries and other assets at a university, so the pressure is on school presidents even if football isn’t their favorite thing.

That pressure worked. They caved.

Nor am I critical of the politics, although it’s obvious politics entered into this. If you have any doubt that President Donald Trump was hoping to gain traction in key Midwestern states by encouraging this for weeks — and calling commissioner Kevin Warren himself — well, just ask him. He tweeted out to Big Ten fans Wednesday, “Have a FANTASTIC SEASON. It is my great honor to have helped.” He’s like the Maui character in the Disney movie Moana: “What can I say except … you’re welcome!”

For what, we’re not sure.

Nor am I upset at the coaches, even though the coaches played a big part in this. Not one Big Ten coach was loudly supportive of the safety in canceling the season back in August. On the other hand, several were notably critical, such as  Ohio State’s Ryan Day, who has his eye on a national championship and won’t be deterred by a little thing like a pandemic, or Nebraska’s Scott Frost, who took things to the absurd, saying Nebraska was “committed to playing no matter what” and threatening to “explore other options” if the season was axed.

Tell me again who thought putting Nebraska in the Big Ten was a good idea.

Still, coaches are like other Americans, they want to work and this is their job. Not to mention they have their teams organized in an assembly line process — recruit, develop, say goodbye — and a canceled season threatened to upend that delicate balance. Hey. You can’t expect fired-up coaches who send players onto the field every week knowing full well they could sustain life-changing injuries to suddenly be afraid of a virus.

Even if they should be.

Life is essential

Nor am I critical of the parents, although their voices played a part in this, too. Despite the fact that the August decision was made in the safest interest of their children, plenty of Big Ten moms and dads expressed their displeasure at the cancellation of the football season. A group of them walked in a “rally” joined by Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who told them he could have his team ready to play “in two weeks” if he had to.

You might wonder, in a nation where over 6.6 million have been infected with COVID-19 and 200,000 have died from it, why risking your son’s health to play eight football games is something that rallies parents. But that’s their right, and they expressed it.

I hope they never have to regret it.

Nor am I critical of the players who plan on going to the NFL. True, it represents a tiny fraction of the football population (only 2% of all FBS players ever get drafted). And what other walk of life makes major changes to mollify 2% of its population?

But those players want what they want and they came to these universities to get it. Can’t blame them for complaining. And they’re not the focus of the problem.

No. The focus of the problem, the thing to be critical of, is one simple fact:

Life is essential. And football is not.

Is it critical that 14 universities have their football players in action this fall? No. Playing football isn’t running a hospital. It isn’t manning a fire station. It isn’t operating an adoption agency, or a factory that makes critical goods, or farms that supply the food chain.

It’s football, folks. Some people can’t pray in churches in this country, but we act as if taking college football away is denying the Lord almighty. You might expect this in other parts of the country, where football really does trump religion. But not in the Big Ten, which liked to think of itself as at least slightly interested in higher principles, such as academics and student welfare.

Not anymore. The Big Ten’s credibility is shot, after being tattered by the infighting and miscommunications under Warren’s watch. And now this obvious cratering to the noise.

What really changed since August? COVID-19 is just as deadly. And starting the season on Oct. 24, which carries it all the way through November and most of December, puts you right in the crosshairs of cold weather and flu season, which experts agree is our most vulnerable time.

Colleges already are the biggest hot spots in the country for COVID-19. Michigan State is currently under a campus-wide suggested quarantine, due to the hundreds of cases it has unearthed in the last few weeks. The parties and frat gatherings go on (heaven forbid schools clamp down on students’ right to party) and this puts football players, who live in the same dormitories and off-campus housing as other students, smack in the heart of America’s most contagious population.

And remember, these players don’t get paid. They count on universities to provide a safe environment.

It was dangerous before the students returned to campus. It’s more dangerous now.

So again, what has really changed?

The problem with playing

The Big Ten will tell you what has changed is testing. They will now give daily antigen tests to players and personnel. They claim this gives them firm control.

“Everyone associated with the Big Ten should be very proud of the groundbreaking steps that are now being taken,” said Dr. Jim Borchers, the head team physician at Ohio State.

Very proud? They are using an initial test that is less sensitive than the gold standard of polymerase chain reaction-based tests  so that they can go faster. And they are amassing these tests, thousands of them, every day, for football personnel, when the rest of the student body and faculty doesn’t have similar access, and the average American still isn’t sure where to go for a test, how long he or she has to wait and who will pay for it. But football players will be tested every single day?

“Proud” isn’t the first word that comes to mind.

Besides, the universities had means to test back in August, albeit with tests that took longer. And they could have promised enhanced cardiac screening back then as well, another thing they are touting as rationale for this return.

So what really changed in a month?  Here’s what: When the Big Ten canceled its season, it thought it was being a leader. It thought the other major conferences would follow suit. The Pac-12 did. But the SEC, ACC and Big 12 did not. It was like a game of chicken, but three cars hit the brakes.

To make things worse, those schools decided to play on and forge forward with a national championship plan, minus the two absent conferences and all the competition they represented.

So envy is at work here. Envy that those other schools are in action. Envy that they can attract recruits while playing. Envy that they can pull in the TV revenue. Football is being hailed as a right, and that right is being denied in the Midwest, while granted in the South. Not fair! We demand justice!

Meanwhile, no one is talking about Jamain Stephens Jr. You probably don’t know his name. But he is now the Big Ten’s biggest potential nightmare.

Stephens was a defensive lineman at California University of Pennsylvania, a Division II school. Even though his school had canceled sports, he returned to campus in part to work out with football teammates, his mother, Kelly Allen, told the media.

Stephens died early this month, at age 20, from a blood clot to the heart after contracting the coronavirus, the family said.

“These kids, their lives are priceless,” Allen told CBS News. “And it’s just not worth it. It’s not worth it.”

If one young man — one — gets the virus and dies or is incapacitated in any way because he felt obliged to rejoin his Big Ten football team, it is on the heads of the university presidents and chancellors who agreed unanimously for this change.

Yes, you can die on a football field from an injury, but presidents weren’t asked to determine whether  football should exist or not. They were asked whether it’s a good idea to plow ahead in this once-in-100-year pandemic.

They said yes.

They said yes knowing all this new testing would only indicate a young man like Stephens had the disease; it wouldn’t do a damn thing to mitigate it. Once a player contracts COVID-19, separating him from the team does nothing for his medical prospects. It only allows the football train to keep running.

Which is the point of this whole thing. Keep the train running. Keep the money flowing. Keep the sports tradition alive.

But know this: pointing to the NBA or NFL is not a road map. One is in a bubble, the other is comprised of grown men who go home to families, not college kids on a campus with the temptations of parties, friends and girlfriends, not to mention the often foolish decision-making of people age 18-22.

Who once again, do NOT GET PAID TO DO THIS.

Call me overly concerned. Call me alarmist. A worrywart. I hope I am. I truly do. This is a sports writer penning this, one who loves college football and has written countless columns and even a book about it.

But if my heart is clouded by worry for young people, there’s nothing wrong with my eyes. And what is crystal clear to me, and should be to you, is that with this reversal of a sound decision, Big Ten schools are clearly in the shape of a tail now, and football is in the shape of the dog. Wag, wag. Ruff, ruff.

Let’s pray nothing awful happens.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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