The Ubiversity of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium projects the news of the return of Big Ten NCAA college football on Wednesday. Less than five weeks after pushing fall sports to spring in the name of player safety during the pandemic, the Big Ten conference changed course Wednesday and said it plans to open its football season the weekend of Oct. 23-24. Francis Gardler/Lincoln Journal Star via AP

 

Here is how important college football is in this country: By Tuesday afternoon, the University of Wisconsin had 2,160 students who had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and all classes were being held virtually. On Wednesday, Barry Alvarez, the school’s athletic director, said: “Our athletes will be able to start practice immediately.”

Here’s how important college football is in the Big Ten: At Michigan State, local authorities ordered that students in 30 large residences must quarantine for two weeks because coronavirus cases were dramatically spiking at the school. The county health officer said in a statement: “There is an outbreak centered on Michigan State University, and it is quickly becoming a crisis. The surge in cases we have seen over the past few weeks is alarming.” The Spartans will open their football season Oct. 23 or 24.

The coronavirus pandemic has completely laid bare the contemptible nature of college athletics. The Big Ten’s decision to reverse course and try to stage a football season made it as crisp and clear as a Saturday afternoon in the fall: Athletic departments do not exist to afford opportunities to compete for thousands of “student-athletes.” Rather, they exist to stage college football seasons. The other stuff is just pretty banners and shiny trophies.

Oh, and this: There is a line now on Big Ten campuses dividing students who play varsity sports and those who don’t.

Think about the disparity here. The conference, at its expense, will provide coronavirus tests every single day to a junior economics major if he happens to play football and a sophomore sociology major who excels at soccer and not to the kids who sit alongside them in class – virtually or in person – but don’t play sports.

That’s a caste system. The scholarship football player finds out whether he is healthy every day. The out-of-state future chemist paying $45,000 a year to attend virtual classes from her dorm room has no such confidence. And the idea that college football players are merely a subset of the greater student population – like members of the debate team or the band – is torn to shreds.

Whatever the inequities, the news that the Big Ten is returning was hailed in Columbus and Ann Arbor, College Park and State College. “It really is a blessing to be here today,” Kevin Warren, the conference’s commissioner, said in celebration. Six weeks ago, university presidents voted, 11-3, not to hold a fall sports season. Warren later said the decision would not be revisited. President Trump called to lobby. Players complained. Parents rallied – and even sued. On Tuesday, those same presidents voted, 14-0, in favor.

Given the about-face, as Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank told a U.S. Senate committee just Tuesday: “Your first question should be: What changed?”

So, then, that’s our first question.

“It wasn’t about political pressure,” said Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern University. “It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about lawsuits. It wasn’t about doing what everybody else was doing. It was the unanimous opinion of our medical experts.”

Listening to a virtual news conference Wednesday – in which Schapiro and Warren were joined by three Big Ten athletic directors as well as James Borchers, the head physician for the Ohio State football team and co-director of the conference’s return-to-play medical subcommittee – you got the distinct feeling this could work. That’s not saying will-or-should work. But could.

Athletes in all Big Ten sports will receive rapid antigen testing daily with results available immediately. Anyone who tests positive would immediately be placed in quarantine and subjected to further testing. Other than family members of players and staff, no fans will be allowed in the stands. From a controlling-the-virus standpoint, the Big Ten’s plan, frankly, sounds better than what’s going on in the ACC, where outbreaks at North Carolina State and Virginia Tech have caused postponements of games already. It even sounds better than the protocols in Major League Baseball.

“We’re very likely to reduce infectiousness inside practice and game populations” to almost zero, Borchers said.

So grab your giant foam finger and fire up the grill!

But Borchers’s assessment – and the subsequent agreement of the 14 school presidents and chancellors – speaks only to the populations of athletes on these campuses. So what’s most important to protect is being protected: the athletes. More importantly: the football players because it’s more apparent now than ever that without football, there’s no field hockey. Without football, there’s nothing.

Put simply, physics majors don’t generate money for their schools. Quarterbacks do. But more than that: The schools that make up the Big Ten are institutions of higher learning. The Big Ten itself is a massive business that stages athletic competitions and creates content for its media partners. The objectives of those two entities don’t always align.

According to Sports Business Journal, the Big Ten’s six-year broadcast deal with ESPN and Fox is worth $2.64 billion. (Yes, that’s with a “B.”) With no football games, this year’s cut of that money doesn’t exist. Without this year’s cut of that money, athletic departments could collapse. Throw in a potential windfall from the College Football Playoff – which intends to stage its three games this year, even with the Pac-12 still sitting out at this point – and the financial part of this about-face is as obvious as an elephant in the corner of an elevator. There’s no place to hide the reasoning.

But the optics – yikes. This is a massive medical undertaking to stage a football season that will prop up athletic departments and make millions of dollars – for everybody but the players. That so many of them want to play anyway could be looked at as admirable, as a nod to the pull of competition and the yearning to be part of a team, the stuff that college sports were built on generations ago. How quaint.

But it’s impossible to ignore that an exception is being made for sports. That toothpaste will never go back into the tube. At Northwestern, for instance, first- and second-year students are not on campus. The athletes will be. Regular students will be able to get virus tests weekly instead of daily.

“I did grapple with that,” Schapiro said. “… At the end of the day, I found the arguments that if we can do it safely – if we can play football and the other fall sports – there’s no reason not to go ahead and do it.”

Maybe the Big Ten will pull off its season. Maybe Ohio State or Penn State or Michigan will qualify for the College Football Playoff. Maybe these games will buoy the college towns they’re in. And the games – man, there could be some good ones.

But college football is advertised as being part of the greater university community, integrated seamlessly. The pandemic reinforces it’s not. Ask the linebacker who is back on campus being tested every single day and the linguist who is quarantined in her sorority house.

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