Opinion: Big Ten football set for return — and collision course with COVID-19 surge

The top story in the Madison, Wisconsin newspaper on Thursday detailed how the local health department was so overwhelmed with cases of COVID-19 that it couldn’t keep up with its standard contact tracing protocols. Meanwhile, the Badgers host Illinois on Friday night. 

In Indiana, there were 180 new hospitalizations on Wednesday — the most since Aug. 31 — and 412 patients in intensive care, the most since late May. The Indianapolis Star reported that the state announced 2,880 new cases of the coronavirus on Thursday — setting yet another record — as well as 42 additional deaths. Both the Hoosiers and Purdue — whose coach can’t participate because he tested positive for COVID-19 — play home games on Saturday. 

And in Ann Arbor, Michigan, things have gotten so bad lately that the local health officials issued a stay-at-home order for the next two weeks, but of course college football is exempt because the Wolverines have to get ready for a big one at Minnesota. 

Welcome back, Big Ten football! At least now we don’t have to pretend that you’re any different than the SEC, ACC, Big 12 or any other conference that continually moved the goalposts on what was going to be necessary to play in the middle of a pandemic.

The Wisconsin Badgers will host the Illinois Fighting Illini at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison Friday night. (Photo: Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

If you’d told Big Ten officials and school presidents back on Aug. 11 that the upper Midwest would be the nation’s worst COVID-19 hotspot by mid-October, they would have felt more than justified in their decision to postpone the football season until early 2021.  And yet here they are, not just having reversed course a month later but starting the season while the coronavirus situation is as bad or worse than ever in so many places within their footprint. 

We may never really know whether the Big Ten’s change of heart was the right way to go. If the pattern follows other conferences, there are going to be significant challenges from week to week, postponed/canceled games and people getting sick.

But ultimately, they’ll be able to play some football this fall, which for many is a success in and of itself. There are plenty of people who believe, no matter how hard of a slog it has been and no matter what the impact on public health, that it’s worth it to have something resembling a season.

If the majority of Big Ten presidents really believed that, however, they would have never voted to postpone the season in the first place.

They knew the financial cost; they knew the backlash from coaches and fans; and they knew the challenges that would come from people with a political interest in having a football season to preserve the illusion that things were getting back to normal. They probably could have even anticipated the pressure from President Trump, who certainly has some electoral interests in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

What they underestimated was the FOMO — for those who aren’t up to date on their slang, it’s the fear of missing out.

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As it turned out, much more powerful than the actual impact of COVID-19 on these college campuses were the images of college football games being played on Sept. 12 in places like Norman, Oklahoma; South Bend, Indiana; Austin, Texas; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Once it became clear everyone else was just going to plow through and deal with whatever obstacles the coronavirus might present, the risk assessment changed for the Big Ten. It wasn’t just about the health and safety of players or what was best for their communities, it was about the possibility of getting left behind.

Big Ten presidents and commissioner Kevin Warren really only made one mistake. They assumed that when officials from other conferences spent all of April, May and June talking about the need for testing to become better and more widely available, for case numbers rates to drop and for the need to have in-person classes to have college football that they were telling the truth. 

But eventually the goalposts had to move, or else there was no path for college football to be played this fall. Eventually, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the Big Ten was bullied into moving right along with the rest. Never again will the power of King Football’s throne be called into question. 

So, college football goes on in the Midwest, but the COVID-19 crisis does, too. If we are on track to follow European countries, where the arrival of colder weather seemingly correlates to another spike in cases, it doesn’t bode well for what’s coming in Big Ten country.

Already, Iowa is setting records for hospitalizations in recent days and hit a high of 31 deaths Wednesday. Nebraska’s hospitalizations were low all summer but surged above 300 on Oct. 11 and are on pace to reach 400 soon. 

Meanwhile, football’s return this weekend means people having a reason to gather to watch games, even though fans won’t be allowed in the stadiums. It’s concerning enough that 12 mayors of cities and towns that encompass Big Ten campuses signed a letter to the league this week asking that games not be played in the evening or late afternoon and to consider test positivity rates for the community in deciding whether it’s unsafe to play a game.  

But at least Ohio State will have a chance to win the national title this year. For better or worse, that was the priority, even if nobody would dare say it out loud. 

It’s possible that playing this fall was the best of a bunch of bad choices for the Big Ten. We’ll find out for sure over time. But for a league that seemed to care deeply about its public health responsibility a few months ago, does starting a season while the pandemic is hitting your communities harder than ever feel all that responsible?

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