One month after postponing their fall football season due to COVID-related concerns regarding testing, contract tracing, and myocarditis, the Big Ten is ready to return to the gridiron. University presidents and chancellors from each of the conference’s 14 members have voted to return to play with a tentative start date of Saturday, Oct. 24, after hearing from the medical subcommittee of the Big Ten’s Return to Competition Task Force over the weekend.
What changed? According to the official statement from the Big Ten, the availability of daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screenings, and an enhanced data-driven approach to making decisions about practice and/or competition.
“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. Test results must be completed and recorded prior to each practice or game. Student-athletes who test positive for the coronavirus through point of contact (POC) daily testing would require a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to confirm the result of the POC test.”
To address concerns over myocarditis, all student-athletes who test positive for COVID-19 will have to undergo comprehensive cardiac testing. “Following cardiac evaluation, student-athletes must receive clearance from a cardiologist designated by the university for the primary purpose of cardiac clearance for COVID-19 positive student-athletes. The earliest a student-athlete can return to game competition is 21 days following a COVID-19 positive diagnosis.”
The mid-October start date means the Big Ten would play eight games in an eight-week window, culminating in a Big Ten Championship game on Saturday, Dec. 19. The College Football Playoff Committee announces their selections on Sunday, Dec. 20.
That eight-week window affords the conference no scheduling flexibility, though, if the hope is for at least one of their teams to be in contention for a playoff spot. Among the teams that have already begun their seasons, two games were postponed in Week 1, five games were postponed in Week 2, and four games have already been postponed in Week 3. Oklahoma opened the season with a 48-0 blowout of FCS Missouri State on Saturday, but were without 19 players due to a combination of COVID-19 positive tests, contact tracing, suspensions, and injuries. Georgia Southern had 33 players who were ruled out ahead of their season opener.
Several Big Ten universities are already facing hurdles. Wisconsin announced last Thursday a two-week pause on football and men’s hockey team activities due to positive COVID-19 tests. Maryland and Penn State have both also suspended team activities for various athletics programs in recent weeks. Students at Michigan State have all been asked to self-quarantine for the next two weeks to help slow the exponential spread of COVID-19 on campus. The University of Illinois recently instituted a campus-wide lockdown on non-essential activities due to an upswing in cases despite their comprehensive containment plan.
The vote to return to play in October follows a month-long public relations debacle for the Big Ten. The initial announcement of the fall football season being postponed came a week after the conference announced their 10-game conference schedule and only a few days after programs started fall camp, prompting criticisms of the timing of the decision. First-year Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren has also come under fire from fans, student-athletes (or their parents), and even head coaches who either disagreed with the decision to postpone (even though the decision was made collectively by the university chancellors and presidents, not Warren) or were not satisfied with the explanation provided for the decision.
We will keep you posted as more details for the fall season are announced.