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Bacon: Big Ten football could be "knocked out" by COVID-19 crisis in 2020

empty baseball stadium
Simon Johnson
As the Detroit Tigers prepare for preseason training at Comerica Park, major questions remain for baseball and other sports trying to return during the COVID-19 crisis.

For a time with very few sporting events, it's been a very busy week for sports news. Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon shared his thoughts on bringing back sports during the COVID-19 crisis and the Detroit Lions' ownership change.

He spoke with with Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou.   

On new leadership for the Lions

The Detroit Lions announced this week Martha Firestone Ford was stepping aside as the team's principle owner. Firestone Ford, 94, had taken over the Lions when her husband, William Clay Ford, Sr., died in 2014. The couple's daughter, Sheila Ford Hamp, is now the team owner.

In a statement Ford Hamp said, "My mother has inspired all of us since taking on leadership of the Lions six years ago."

Bacon acknowledged that fans frustated by the Lions' losing ways might not exactly agree.   

"Their patience after 60 years has kind of run out with the Ford family ownership," Bacon said. "However, I've got to say some things on behalf of the Ford family. They've been great to Detroit, never, ever threaten to move the team out. And it's a myth they don't care about winning or they're trying to pocket the money. Martha Firestone Ford hired [Lions General Manager] Bob Quinn from the [New England] Patriots, the assistant GM, and their assistant football coach, Matt Patricia. When you're getting the two assistants from the best franchise in the history of the NFL, you are trying to win." 

On the Tigers and MLB trying to return

Major League Baseball and its players' union agreed to play a 60-game season this year. Normally, the MLB regular season is 162 games.

"If there's one sport I think might get knocked out before we get to the fall, it would be Big Ten football." -John U. Bacon

There will be many rules in place to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when the preseason training begins July 1. But the Tigers have already announced that one player and one staff member have tested positive for the disease. 

Bacon favors the shortened season, but isn't sure about baseball's chances of having a safe season.

"Frankly, the 162 games is way too long for anybody's tastes. But the second question is the health question. Baseball has got to be just about the easiest sport to conduct safely, next to tennis or golf, and compared to football. But whether that's going to work? No one knows."

On student-athletes and the prospects for college football this fall

If college football returns, Bacon predicts large stadiums, like those in the Big Ten Conference, would have to limit crowds to 10,000 to 15,000 fans. But he's not sure there will be games at all.

"Football is the hardest sport to conduct safely. You got five guys on the [offensive and defensive] lines, facing each other, that are sweating. They spit on each other in the piles, for crying out loud. How can this not spread?"  

Michigan and Michigan State tested hundreds of athletes before voluntary, on-campus workouts this month. The schools had several positive tests between them. Bacon noted that Ohio State had its football players sign waivers about contracting COVID-19 before allowing them to return to campus. 

"If there's one sport I think might get knocked out before we get to the fall, it would be Big Ten football."

On tough choices and the long view

"How can sports come before the safety of a society? Sports is a way of spreading the coronavirus. And that was true in 1918 [during] the Spanish Flu. Michigan's football season was cut down to five games. And they were national champs at 5 and 0 [sharing the title with Pittsburgh]," Bacon said.

"You have to put safety first. I certainly miss sports and I know many fans do. But I'm seeing a lot of responses on Twitter and elsewhere of people who are realizing, 'You know what, I can do pretty well without it.' I've always thought that sports were a bubble about to burst and this might be the bubble bursting."

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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