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Bacon: As Big Ten football considers start dates, serious COVID-19 questions remain

aerial view of empty University of Michigan football stadium
Alex Mertz
Michigan and Michigan State were originally scheduled to start their 2020 schedules on Sept. 5, but the Big Ten postponed the season. Now the conference is reportedly considering new start dates.

Pop-up tents, coolers, and cornhole sets will be sitting, unused, in sheds and garages across the state of Michigan Saturday morning. Big Ten football is on hold. Both the Michigan State Spartans and the Michigan Wolverines were supposed to play their season openers until COVID-19 got in the way.

Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon joined Morning Edition host Doug Tribou to discuss the propsects of salvaging the season.

Many possible start dates

After President Donald Trump spoke with Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren this week, Trump tweeted that the conference was on the “one yard line” for bringing football back. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh told some players an October start is possible, but ESPN has also reported late November, early January and the spring all remain on the table.

Bacon says a month ago, he thought there was no chance of football this fall, but he now believes a November start date is a real possibility.

“When President Trump says they're on the one-yard line, it's not clear which one-yard line. Do they have one yard to go or 99 to go? I think it's somewhere in the middle right now.”

Knowing the risks

"If a campus can't contain [COVID-19], how can college football?" -John U. Bacon

A group of Nebraska players sued the Big Ten for postponing the season. Documents revealed in that lawsuit show university leaders voted 11-3 to postpone. Many players and parents who want the season to happen now say the athletes are adults and they “know the risks.”

Bacon agrees, but with a caveat. 

“The parents know the risks about blowing out your knee, about concussions, and the players are very versed in this stuff. So, this is just one more risk pile than to have a risk,” he says. “A concussion is not contagious. … [We] know a fair amount about concussions, CTE, and other related head injuries. [COVID-19] is a new virus. Therefore, our data is nine months old. We're not very good at this.”

A call for transparency

The same players and their families have criticized Big Ten officials for not being open about how the decision to postpone the season was made.

“The Big Ten made what I think is a plausible decision into one subject to suspicion, conspiracy theories, you name it,” Bacon says. “And why not release that vote? Why not release the data the vote was based on?”

The role of testing 

The Pac-12 has announced a partnership with diagnostic testing company Quidel Corporation that will allow for rapid-response testing of its athletes. That could mean a quicker return for football for the conference.

“Although the rapid-response test is a big step … you can also ask: why is a 19-year-old football player getting this rapid test and not, let's say, a health care worker or even somebody working at a grocery store who might need it more? That's a societal value question.”

And as college campuses around the country deal with COVID-19 outbreaks among returning students, Bacon sees serious challenges for athletic departments.

“[NCAA] sports do not exist in a vacuum,” he says. “If a campus can't contain it, how can college football?”

Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length. You can listen to the complete interview at the top of the page. 

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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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