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Bacon: Big Ten football's return raises questions about player safety, equity among students

Spartan stadium
Flickr/Ken Lund
The Big Ten conference reversed its decision and will have a fall football season. The news came just after Michigan State University’s home city of East Lansing was identified as the epicenter of a COVID-19 hotspot.";

The Big Ten Conference will play football this fall. After postponing the season – and a lot of behind-the-scenes back and forth since then – the leaders of the member universities voted in favor of a plan to start the season next month.

Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon joined Doug Tribou on Morning Edition to discuss the decision.

Details of the plan

Under the new agreement, the season will start on October 23 and 24. Each team will play eight regular-season games. But the announcement focused almost entirely on the medical aspects of the plan. Two things stood out to Bacon.

"One, the best and fastest tests are being used for these players, which I think is a very good thing. Two, their screens for when you can't play. A team positivity rate 5% or higher. And the community population [positivity rate] of 7.5% or higher," Bacon said.

But Bacon also has questions about those standards.

"[W]ho defines who is on your team and who's in your community? I suspect we'll be adjudicating that all fall," he said.

Questions of equity  

The Big Ten announcement notes that student-athletes, coaches, trainers and others will be required to undergo “daily antigen testing.” But a day earlier, speaking about the University of Michigan’s overall COVID response, President Mark Schlissel explained that U of M was still ramping up testing for students without symptoms. 

"[T]he odds of canceling a lot of games are very good." -John U. Bacon

"This is where critics have got a field day, saying that clearly student athletes and in this case ... football players,  have much higher status for safety than does the student population as a whole," Bacon said. "And deny it if you want, but the contrast in testing would bear that out." 

USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan wrote yesterday that the decision to start the season was, “the darkest day in Big Ten sports history, the day the vaunted conference caved. It choked. It got scared.”

Bacon, who considers Brennan a friend, says he respects her position, but thinks of the news differently. He pointed to sexual assault scandals at conference schools, specifically the cases of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, former Michgian State physician Larry Nassar, and former University of Michigan doctor Robert Anderson.  

"There are other [dark] days in Big Ten history," Bacon said. "But this might be the toughest decision. ... It depends on how it turns out, frankly. That's that's where I stand."

Will more conferences follow?

With the Big Ten returning to play, the Mid-American Conference, home to Eastern, Central, and Western Michgian universities, is still holding out until the spring, as is the Mountain West Conference.  Bacon expects them to continue to hold off on football. However, he believes the PAC-12 will soon announce a schedule. 

Football programs around the country have struggled with COVID-19 cases. Louisiana State University’s coach Ed Orgeron recently said “most” of his team has had the disease. And Michigan State’s home city of East Lansing was just identified as the epicenter of a localized COVID hotspot

When the Big Ten tries to navigate those types of obstacles, Bacon expects some stumbles.

"[T]he way the they've set up their own rules, it's almost as if they expect ... to have to cancel many football games this fall, which I imagine is going to happen. The rates are going to ramp up in October when more students are co-mingling. I think that the odds of canceling a lot of games are very good."

Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the full interview at the top of the page. 

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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