Reckoning with the Return of Big Ten Football During the Covid-19 Pandemic

By Dan Smith on September 17, 2020 at 11:44 am
Nov 30, 2019; University Park, PA, USA; A general view of Beaver Stadium prior to the game between the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

On July 5, shortly after Major League Baseball players returned to training camp ahead of the shortened 2020 season, Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle spoke to Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post about his thoughts on professional baseball's partial return amid the Covid-19 pandemic. He was asked how he felt about the upcoming season, less than two weeks after the league and player's union had agreed to terms on playing in 2020.

Doolittle is one of the most thoughtful athletes in American professional sports and was weighing whether he even was going to participate in the season with all of the uncertainty still abound. Some of his comments still feel very relevant over two months later:

We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back. Sports are like the reward of a functioning society. And we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve, whatever you want to say. We did flatten the curve a little bit, but we didn’t use that time to do anything productive. We just opened back up for Memorial Day. We decided we’re done with it ... I’m not a public health expert, but we should probably defer to them on some of these issues. So I don’t know if it’s safe or not. I really don’t know.

Autumn begins next week, and American society remains in the same limbo it has been in since Doolittle made those comments over two months ago. There is no vaccine. Progress on treatment and testing has been limited at best. Research into the lingering health effects on those who survive the virus is ongoing, but it does appear that a notable percentage of survivors have serious side effects, possibly permanent.

Sports have returned, albeit in altered form. Three of the four professional sports have banned fans entirely, with a select few NFL teams allowing for limited capacity. The NBA and NHL successfully executed planned bubbles to complete their regular seasons and hold their playoffs, which are both nearing a conclusion in the next month. Baseball could not do a bubble for its regular season and has experienced some concerning consequences as a result. But they appear prepared to finish the regular season and move into some bubbles for their own playoffs. All in all, it could have been a lot worse.

There was more optimism in the early days of the pandemic. In the weeks after shutdowns commenced in mid-March, we saw the United States show a surprising willingness to make a serious and concerted effort to pitch in. Unfortunately, those in positions to do something about it did not show the same willingness. Desperation for many, and selfishness by a select but powerful few, resulted in a disjointed response over the spring and summer. Some are back to work; others are working remotely or lost their jobs entirely. Some schools brought their students back in person for the 2020-21 school year; many are now remote even if they were not before.

Amidst all of the unknowns, one of the few certainties is that our best current defense against Covid-19 is avoiding prolonged time around others without a mask, staying more then six feet from one another, and sticking to the outdoors. Running a large athletic program is not conducive to avoiding any of those three main risk factors.

So it came down on August 11 that the Big Ten would not play in the fall. This was at the same time as the Pac 12 made a similar announcement. It was less than two weeks after an outbreak in the Miami Marlins organization had interrupted several teams' Major League seasons. At the time, many thought the other conferences would follow suit. But the ACC, Big 12, and SEC pressed on, and their inaction became regarded as the norm.

It is unclear exactly how the Big Ten came to its decision, but it felt like the correct one. Even if the conference was doing it for financial and litigious reasons, perhaps even over the amateurism questions a season would inevitably bring forth, it was better for them to arrive at the right choice accidentally than to not get there at all.

It was too much risk to consistently have over 100 players, coaches, and staff members spending significant time in close proximity to one another. Even with the games being played (mostly) outside, the risk of transmission from team to team, considering the lack of any possibility of social distancing in a contact sport, was and is very real.

But the true danger lies in locker rooms, gymnasiums, buses, planes, hotels, classrooms, and dorms. While players were going to classes, living in dorms and apartments around other students, and being exposed indoors to other students who were socializing irresponsibly, it did not seem possible that it could be safe. Not while testing, tracing, and treatment remain far from where they need to be.

To this point, there have been positive Covid-19 tests for Penn State athletes, but they have been limited. They are lucky. Other NCAA programs that have pressed on with their 2020 seasons have seen much worse. Some are struggling to field enough players to hold practice. Games are being postponed.

Stepping back from the immediate safety concerns, the 2020 season was supposed to be Penn State's next real shot to make its first College Football Playoff. They were going to have the chance to put the heartbreaking 2017 losses to Ohio State and Michigan State in the rearview mirror, with two of the best players in the country playing in their final seasons before ascending to the professional ranks.

The uncertainty surrounding the season has derailed that anticipation. All-American linebacker Micah Parsons has signed with an agent and has moved on to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. Reports initially indicated that all-American tight end Pat Freiermuth may follow that same path, though he has now announced that he will, in fact, play this season. They may not be the only players having second thoughts.

Every team is dealing with unprecedented challenges in trying to prepare for the season. Practices and scrimmages cannot be held like they normally would, and offseason training was significantly interrupted. There is no out of conference schedule to get game experience before hitting the heart of conference play. Coaches are hired for a variety of skills they bring to the table; it is tough to imagine any of them spent much time thinking through how to coach through an indefinite pandemic until now. The gameplay may vary wildly throughout the eight games, and may not accurately reflect the talent, preparation, and even the coaching ability of the programs.

Despite all of that, many fans will feel excited about the prospect of getting football back. No matter your concerns over safety, you want to see your team compete. It creates a sense of community, even without the ability to go in person to see games or even tailgate. You want the players you root for to have the opportunity to see some payoff for their hard work. There is an inevitable feeling of missing out when you see other fanbases able to get excited about their teams once again while you cannot. And the players and coaches want it, so why shouldn't you?

And there is a normalizing effect that comes with this. Over the next month, we will get used to the idea of college football returning. Our nervous energy will dissipate with every round of clean test results. We may be able to return to arguing about the normal things we argue about and sometimes forget what happened in the lead up to the season at times. It is very easy to let the desire for that to be true become the reality.

The Nittany Lions will still be able to field a good, competitive team ... assuming everyone is healthy. That assumption may not be a wise one. The Big Ten's announcement was based on reports from health officials at the conference's schools, but they are only able to make recommendations. There are many unknowns that will persist. Just because athletes are not collapsing on the field on live television does not necessarily mean it is safe to play football again.

If the testing can get to a point where they are able to identify potential outbreaks before they happen, and quarantine and treat infected athletes right away and get them back to full health, then fans will once again be able to watch college athletes at the comfort level they had previously been able to. But for testing and treatment to get to that point would be a change from the current reality.

The hope, from Wednesday's announcement of the return of Penn State football, is that the testing has gotten there. It is far from a certainty. We are only two months removed from Major League Baseball teams suspecting that false-positive tests kept players like Juan Soto and Joey Gallo out of their respective lineups. The 21-day sit-out requirement following a positive test in the Big Ten's plan incentivizes programs to cast doubt on the test results if negatives start to follow right away. Chaos takes over once that happens.

It is a farce to claim, as at least one national columnist did, that this is the darkest day in the history of the Big Ten. That said, it is equally absurd to claim that this is a victory for players' parents. Some of them declared victory yesterday, and one even claimed to be a hero.

Make no mistake: this was a business decision. Sure, they may have gotten better access to testing than they were able to in August. We cannot know for sure what those plans or offers looked like a month ago, or if there even was a plan that asked these sorts of questions.

What actually changed, though, over the last five weeks? The Big Ten and Pac-12 were established in the media as the exceptions, not the rule. The conversation was no longer about whether or not college football would happen. It became about why it was not happening here.

The postponed season was threatening the bottom line. Future relevance was at stake as the questions of Big Ten "legitimacy" started to infect the recruiting trails. Television contracts that pay the way for Big Ten programs, especially in a time without tickets, parking passes, and gameday merchandise sales would be at risk if the season was played too late to factor into the College Football Playoff.

We are likely to hear in the coming weeks that the Big Ten universities and their athletic departments are comfortable with the levels of testing. They will highlight the strictness of their testing policies as evidence that they really mean to take this seriously, even as cases skyrocket in college towns.

All that really means is that other powerful people said enough to give university presidents permission to turn the college football machine back on. It may truly be safe to play, but the decision itself to restart the season is not proof-positive. Many other powerful people in the United States have been happy to hit the restart button for various aspects of life long before things were actually safe.

So here we are, with the Big Ten set to return for the fall 2020 season. And once again, these young men will put in a tremendous amount of work to make other people some money, in the hope that they can one day make some for themselves. The pandemic has changed a lot, but it appears there are some things that it will never change.

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