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Big Ten reverses course, decides to start football next month

The Big Ten has reversed course. There will be college football this fall.

The Big Ten announced Wednesday that the fall football season will begin October 23. The conference has not said when or if other fall sports will also get the go ahead. 

Stateside spoke to Detroit Free Press higher education reporter David Jesse about the decision to move forward with a fall football season, even as COVID-19 cases continue to rise on college campuses. Hear that conversation above. 

A month ago, the university presidents voted to indefinitely postpone all fall sports amid concerns about COVID-19. But the conference announced Wednesday morning that The Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors has adopted significant medical protocols, including daily antigen testing, and enhanced cardiac screening, to ensure the health and safety of student-athletes.

“Our focus with the Task Force over the last six weeks was to ensure the health and safety of our student-athletes. Our goal has always been to return to competition so all student-athletes can realize their dream of competing in the sports they love,” said Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren.

The Big Ten will require student-athletes, coaches, trainers and other individuals that are on the field for all practices and games to undergo daily antigen testing. The daily testing will begin by September 30.  

The Big Ten Conference will use data to make decisions about the continuation of practice and competition, as determined by team positivity rate and population positivity rate, based on a seven-day rolling average:

Team positivity rate (number of positive tests divided by total number of tests administered):

  • Green 0-2%
  • Orange 2-5%
  • Red >5%

Population positivity rate (number of positive individuals divided by total population at risk):

  • Green 0-3.5%
  • Orange 3.5-7.5%
  • Red >7.5%

Decisions to alter or halt practice and competition will be based on the following scenarios:

  • Green/Green and Green/Orange: Team continues with normal practice and competition.
  • Orange/Orange and Orange/Red: Team must proceed with caution and enhance COVID-19 prevention (alter practice and meeting schedule, consider viability of continuing with scheduled competition).
  • Red/Red: Team must stop regular practice and competition for a minimum of seven days and reassess metrics until improved.

The original decision to indefinitely suspend the fall football was criticized by many fans, players and coaches. That criticism grew louder when three other major college football conferences decided to go ahead and play.
“Presidents saw--and all the fans of their programs saw--all these other places playing. And the question was, well, if they can play, why can’t we?” Detroit Free Press reporter David Jesse told Stateside.

As COVID-19 cases continue to spike at universities, including Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, some people in those college towns are worried about game day gatherings contributing to spread of the virus, Jesse said. Fans won’t be able to visit the Big House or Spartan Stadium in person, under Governor Whitmer’s currentexecutive order. But that won’t necessarily prevent tailgates, he noted. After the news broke, some students also noted a discrepancy between daily testing for student athletes and the rest of the campus community. 

“I’ve heard from some students today who have said, ‘Well, you can test the football players all the time, but what about me? I actually pay tuition here—where’s my tests? Can I get tested every day?” Jesse said. “So it has the potential to really turn into a mess this fall.”

College football is a major revenue source for university athletic departments. The decision to suspend the 2020 football season threatened to cost Big Ten programs, including the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, tens of millions of dollars. 

“Revenue definitely made a difference. There’s no doubt money talks,” Jesse said. “There was also political pressure. [President Donald Trump] has been tweeting about this, about the phone call with the Big Ten commissioner, and then was out this morning already claiming credit for having helped get this through. Fans, lawsuits, all that stuff, all that pressure definitely helped push it through.”

But in the end, Jesse said, the decision to play football came down to player safety. The conference moved forward with the football season after it was satisfied advancements in rapid, daily testing could be available to protect the health of student athletes and coaches this fall.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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