The Big Ten announced Thursday that all fall sports would play a conference-only schedule.
But the measure still doesn’t guarantee sports will be played.
In an appearance on Big Ten Network, conference commissioner Kevin Warren acknowledged the possibility that sports, including college football, are not played this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“One thing we have to realize that this is not a fait accompli that we’re gonna have sports in the fall,” Warren said. “We may not have sports in the fall. We may not have a college football season in the Big Ten.”
The Big Ten became the first major Power 5 conference to eliminate all non-conference competition this fall. The decision was made so that the conference “will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic,” according to a statement released by the conference.
The Big Ten also said that schools may continue voluntary workouts and that athletes who choose to sit out due to their concerns about COVID-19 will still have their scholarships honored by their institution and “will remain in good standing with their team.”
According to Warren, the Big Ten chose to announce its decision Thursday after a detailed collaborative process that included communication on a regular basis with university chancellors and presidents, athletic directors and head football coaches.
“This allows us to be able to just take another step in this entire process,” Warren said. “This is a complicated time, complicated world that we’re living in with the COVID-19 pandemic, and so what we’re doing is relying on the expert advice of our medical advisors. We have our Big Ten emerging infectious disease committee, and also all of our other Big Ten doctors and trainers.
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“And so we made a vow early on that first and foremost, we would put the health and safety and wellness of our student athletes at the center of all of our decisions. So we felt that this was an appropriate time to make this announcement.”
One of the key deciding factors was maintaining “the flexibility of scheduling all the operations,” which would not have been possible if teams played non-conference opponents. Mitigating the risk from travel to non-conference competitions was another reason why the Big Ten came to Thursday’s decision.
“It’s much easier if we’re just working with our Big Ten institutions from a scheduling standpoint, from a traveling standpoint, all of those issues that go into having our student athletes compete,” Warren said. “Because otherwise, when you start working outside your conference, you put yourself in a position where there are enough issues that we’re dealing with already, but then you add on top of it the issues of travel and just the logistics associated with it.
“Dealing with this pandemic, not understanding how COVID-19 is moving and moving in our society, some days are better than the others, and we just felt by making sure that we kept our scheduling, our games, our competition in the Big Ten family would allow us the flexibility to get us in a better position to possibly play and that’s where we wanna be.”
Warren also reiterated that student-athletes are not mandated to participate in voluntary summer activities and that, if worried about COVID-19, they also can choose to sit out mandatory activities once they resume.
“Any Big Ten student athletes who decide not to participate in student athletics based upon COVID-19, we’re honoring their scholarship 100%,” Warren said. “So their status on the team will not be impacted at all in a negative manner. They have the flexibility and we just want to make sure that we do everything we possibly can.
Now, Warren says, the conference’s attention will turn to finalizing the schedules for fall sports. ESPN reported Thursday that football will likely move to a 10-game conference schedule; teams currently have nine conference games scheduled in 2020.
“Quite naturally this is really where the work begins, to make sure that we get all of our testing protocols finalized, to make sure that we get all of our medical and operational procedures finalized, but then also start working with our network partners and then, like you just alluded to is from a scheduling standpoint, to start working on various scenarios that will work,” Warren said. “So over the next week or so, we’ll work through all of the scheduling issues that we’ll have to deal with, to make sure that we’re always doing the best that we possibly can to keep our student athletes healthy and safe, but also provide some great Big Ten football, hopefully in the fall, to our fans.
“Now, we can move forward and try to start putting all these other pieces in place from a scheduling standpoint, from an operational standpoint, from a testing protocol standpoint, and all the different things that we’ll have to deal with. And also just working through with the return to campus and making sure our student-athletes stay as healthy and as safe as they possibly can, but also afford them an opportunity, if we’re so blessed, to be able to play fall sports in the Big Ten.”
Here’s what other Big Ten athletic directors had to say:
Ohio State’s Gene Smith (on BTN): “I’m really concerned … When you look at the behavior of our country and in May we were on a downward trajectory … Now, if we are not the worst in the world, one of the worst in the world.”
Penn State’s Sandy Barbour: “We remain optimistic about our ability to play sports this fall and in the 2020-21 academic year. We have no doubt it will look, feel and act differently than we have become accustomed to over time. But giving our student-athletes the opportunity to compete in the sport they love and have played their entire lives is important to them individually and us collectively, as well as to the psyche and viability of our community. Please have no doubt, it’s not more important than health and safety, but it cannot and will not be easily cast aside.”
Iowa’s Gary Barta: “We fully support the actions being taken by the Big Ten Conference, knowing that the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches and staff is the top priority. … While many uncertainties still exist, today’s decision will provide the greatest amount of flexibility as we move forward.”
Michigan State’s Bill Beekman: “Throughout the Big Ten Conference, across every institution, the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans remains our number one priority. Today’s decision is based on medical advice, and provides the flexibility to adjust as needed based on the most up-to-date information. Although there are more decisions to be made, we look forward to continue working with the Big Ten Conference and the member institutions in hoping to be able to provide our student-athletes with the best possible experience.”
Minnesota’s Mark Coyle: “We are supportive of the Big Ten’s decision to move to an all-conference schedule for all fall sports. We will continue to work with medical experts and Big Ten and campus leadership as we prepare for this transition.”
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