Just a month after postponing its fall sports season to the spring, the Big Ten Conference on Wednesday announced that it would indeed play football this fall, starting Oct. 23.
The Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors voted unanimously to play the season in the fall, citing “significant medical protocols including daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and an enhanced data-driven approach when making decisions about practice/competition.”
It’s a stunning reversal after the conference received pressure from players, coaches, parents, fans and even President Donald Trump to change its decision. And while the number of new protocols put in place is reassuring to medical experts, others believe the conference caved for financial reasons after watching other conferences kick off their seasons.
When the Big Ten initially postponed the season Aug. 13, becoming the first Power 5 conference to do so, it cited health concerns — particularly myocarditis, a heart condition linked to COVID-19 — and a lack of rapid testing it thought would hamper its ability to quickly identify coronavirus cases.
Under the new plan, athletes, coaches and trainers will undergo daily antigen testing. Athletes who test positive for COVID-19 through point-of-contact daily testing would require a polymerase chain reaction test to confirm the result of the POC test.
Athletes who test positive will also have to undergo “comprehensive cardiac testing” and receive clearance from a cardiologist designated by their university. Each university will designate a chief infection officer to oversee collecting and reporting data for the Big Ten.
Scott Jerome, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of sports cardiology, is a sports cardiologist for the University of Maryland, College Park and University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He said that every athlete in College Park who had previously tested positive for COVID-19 must undergo blood tests, EKGs, echocardiograms and cardiac MRIs to get clearance to play.
Jerome said the number of hurdles those athletes have to overcome before playing is reassuring.
“I’m happier that we’re going to test them and that we’re not going to move forward until they’re all tested,” he said. “Now, can we test hundreds and hundreds of kids before they start playing? That’s the big question. I was very uncomfortable before. But if we can get everyone tested, my comfort level is higher.”
Jerome acknowledged that the still unknown long-term effects of the coronavirus — especially involving myocarditis — are a concern.
“We just don’t know enough about this virus and its cardiac effects,” he said. “It’s so new. It’s just six months old. We just don’t have experience with this. … I think we have put in hopefully enough safeguards to lower the risk. If we didn’t do this, if we didn’t put this protocol in place, I would be against them playing.”
On a video conference call with Maryland athletic director Damon Evans and football coach Mike Locksley, Dr. Yvette Rooks, assistant director of the university’s heath center, said that the designated cardiologist would visit the campus once a week to assist with echocardiograms and provide consultation.
The earliest an athlete can return to games after a positive test is 21 days. Ohio State football head physician Dr. James Borchers told The Big Ten Network that this timeline would allow for players who have contracted COVID-19 to undergo all the required tests, as well as conduct a seven-day transition period back to the field. Daily testing will begin Sept. 30, and Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said all fall-sports athletes would be tested.
Evans noted that daily testing played a pivotal role in the decision. No other Power 5 league is testing its football players more than three times a week.
On Wednesday, Maryland announced that it tested 449 student-athletes for COVID-19 on Sept. 8, and 35 tested positive; 19 of them were already in quarantine. After suspending athletic activities Sept. 3 following 46 positive tests, 13 of 20 teams, including football, have resumed training, the school said.
In total, Maryland athletics has administered 2,640 tests, with 98 positive results, a positivity rate of 3.7%. Rooks declined to give specific figures for the football team but said that its positivity rate fell under 5%.
On a campus-wide level, the university confirmed 88 new cases from Sept. 6 to Sept. 12, a positivity rate of 3.6% that week. Cumulatively, the university has registered a positivity rate of 1.14%.
The conference will monitor team positivity rates and the population positivity rate — which Brochers defined as on a campus, local and state level — to decide about continuing play. Based on a seven-day rolling average, team activities will be suspended for a minimum of seven days if a team positivity rate rises above 5% and a population positivity rate rises above 7.5%.
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez told The Big Ten Network that the conference would announce later this week a nine-game schedule that included every team playing on championship weekend Dec. 19, the day before the College Football Playoff committee’s selection Dec. 20. Each team will play an eight-game regular-season schedule with no built-in bye week. The ninth game of the season will consist of each school playing the team in the opposite division that finished in the same place as them.
Six Maryland football players, including quarterback Josh Jackson, decided last month to opt out of the season because of coronavirus concerns. Even with more safety protocols in place, Evans said any decision to opt back into the season would be up to the discretion of coaches.
“What I’ve found is because of things being so fluid,” Locksley said, “if a guy decided to want to opt back in, we bring those guys in, we talk, we have a conversation and we make sure that for both parties that it’s the best situation for us all moving forward.”
Sandy Barbour, vice president for Intercollegiate Athletics at Penn State, told The Big Ten Network that fans won’t be allowed at games and there will be no public sale of tickets, but the conference is working to accommodate families for home and away games.
Evans acknowledged that the prospect of a lost football season could have a severe economic impact on the athletic department, one that already has its share of financial concerns. He estimated that the department was projecting a loss in revenue of about $60 million to $65 million without a football season. Salvaging a season will allow the department to recoup some of the revenue, Evans said, but “it’s still going to be a tough financial situation for us moving forward.”
Ted P. Tatos, an economist at Econ One Research and former adjunct professor of economics at the University of Utah, said money is a primary reason the conference reversed its decision.
“The ultimate driver is money,” said Tatos, who wrote an article in May cautioning a premature return to college football. “I think they’re looking at the SEC and the ACC and their schools continuing to earn money or continuing to offset some of their losses. They put money ahead of the long-term welfare of their athletes.”
Pointing out that universities are eager to recoup revenue from ticket sales and TV contracts and pay employees and debt notes on stadiums and other on-campus buildings, Tatos said the Big Ten’s reversal is not shocking.
“I’m not surprised that they decided to go this route,” he said. “I’m disappointed but not surprised. To see universities with major football programs placing their own well being over the well being of their athletes is not new at all. It’s sort of par for the course.”
With the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12 kicking off their seasons last weekend and the Southeastern Conference set to begin its season Sept. 26, the Pac-12 Conference remains the sole Power 5 league that is not playing in the fall.
Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.