A week ago, the Big Ten finally released its long-awaited schedule. The SEC revealed its crossover games, lighting up social media with complaints about soft draws for Alabama and memes mocking Missouri and Arkansas.
Yes, UConn already had canceled its season, and there were whispers that the Mid-American Conference would soon follow. But most of college football was in a happy place.
“Friday was like Christmas,” said a Power 5 conference coach whose team practiced that day. “Guys are hooting and hollering. It was unbelievable.”
The good vibes quickly faded during the weekend, sending the sport into one of its most turbulent stretches. The MAC announced early Saturday that there would be no MACtion this fall. Then on Sunday afternoon, ESPN and others reported that the vast majority of Big Ten presidents favored postponing fall sports. They had allies with the presidents and chancellors of the Pac-12, long thought to be the Power 5 league most likely to postpone because of its location and regional restrictions. Without the Big Ten and Pac-12, could the rest of college football even push forward?
As postponements loomed, players pushed back. At 4:20 p.m. ET Sunday, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft, tweeted, “#WeWantToPlay.” Many prominent players and coaches joined, and by Monday, the hashtag was the top trending item on Twitter. Big Ten coaches such as Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Ohio State’s Ryan Day, Nebraska’s Scott Frost and Penn State’s James Franklin urged the league to push forward, increasing pressure on new commissioner Kevin Warren and a league in which public discord is extremely rare. Nebraska and later Ohio State even discussed a desire to explore playing a fall season outside of the conference.
Several politicians voiced their support, from Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse to Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan to President Donald Trump, who retweeted Lawrence and included the message, “The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled. #WeWantToPlay.” Meanwhile, the Mountain West postponed its fall season late Monday afternoon.
The player campaign grew quickly but ultimately didn’t sway the Big Ten or Pac-12, which made back-to-back announcements Tuesday that their fall football seasons had been postponed. While the Pac-12’s vote was unanimous, the divisions in the Big Ten stung a league that prides itself on unity.
When the SEC and ACC affirmed their desire to push forward, all eyes turned to the Big 12, a league viewed as the swing vote on fall football. Big 12 presidents met Tuesday night and gave the green light.
By Wednesday, college football was right back where it started, celebrating a schedule release, this time from the Big 12.
“You’d just like to see all the conferences on the same page,” a Power 5 coach said. “That’s what frustrates me. You could kind of see this coming for months. Everybody was doing their own thing. That’s never good. That, to me, is the biggest takeaway from this whole mess.”
To make some sense of the “mess,” ESPN reporters Adam Rittenberg, Mark Schlabach, Heather Dinich, Chris Low, Kyle Bonagura and Sam Khan Jr. spoke with commissioners, administrators, coaches and medical experts throughout the Power 5 conferences.
Even in announcing the Big Ten’s schedule and medical protocols on Aug. 5, Warren spoke cautiously about the fall season. As teams opened preseason camp on Thursday and Friday, Warren met extensively with the Big Ten’s infectious diseases task force and the league’s sports medicine committee, reviewing the latest information about COVID-19.
Did one piece of information push Warren toward postponement? Reports about myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle caused by viral condition, and its occurrence for Big Ten athletes and others infected by COVID-19 had appeared on his radar. There also were concerns surrounding the absence of reliable rapid testing, increased regional numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases and restrictive contact-tracing protocols, which several coaches in the Big Ten and other conferences say makes it impossible to practice or play without major interruptions.
Along with the data, the Big Ten had anecdotal evidence such as Indiana freshman offensive lineman Brady Feeney, whose mother had detailed on Facebook her son’s struggles with COVID-19, which included an emergency room visit because of breathing issues and possible lingering heart problems. Several Big Ten coaches suggested the Facebook post significantly impacted presidents and chancellors as they decided whether to proceed with the fall season.
Intense Facebook post here from Debbie Rucker, mother of Indiana freshman OL Brady Feeney. pic.twitter.com/Ula5lBQfO2
— Sam Blum (@SamBlum3) August 3, 2020
“You look at the overall numbers during this global pandemic, as far as caseloads, they have not decreased; they have gone up. Trends have not improved; they’ve become worse,” Warren told ESPN. “You add that up and you’re getting ready to go into more formal practice, it’s just a level of not only concerns but unknown risks. When you’re dealing with the health of human beings, it’s serious.”
By Saturday, word started spreading around the Big Ten that Warren and the league presidents were leaning toward postponement. One source told ESPN the Big Ten athletic directors had a meeting at 7:30 Saturday morning in which there was “a lot of back-and-forth” about the level of concern from the individual schools’ medical staffs.
Around midday, the Big Ten announced that football teams would remain in the helmets-only, no-pads phase of practices, citing feedback from its medical advisors. The league’s news release included the ominous line: “We understand there are many questions regarding how this impacts schedules, as well as the feasibility of proceeding forward with the season at all.”
“It doesn’t look good,” a conference source said.
By Sunday, most league presidents had heard enough, but they didn’t formally vote to postpone. The hope, sources said, was to announce postponement alongside the Pac-12, which had a presidents’ meeting set for Tuesday.
Ohio State held an early-morning practice on Monday, but most teams called off formal workouts, awaiting further instructions from the conference.
“We had numerous conversations from Friday all the way through Sunday, just back and forth; these things are really hard to describe,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN. “I can’t say there was one moment in time, but it was clear that we’re moving in the direction of shutting down.”
Paul Finebaum outlines why he’s confused by the timing of the Big Ten’s announcement to postpone the college football season, plus how it could affect recruiting going forward.
There was frustration throughout the league as there was more speculation than answers trickling down from the top.
“The hardest part is having to talk about this to your players and then to their parents with no real answers and not having it thoroughly explained why we’re not playing,” a Big Ten source said. “I wish the league would have been more forthcoming and more transparent about what they were hearing from medical personnel to arrive at this decision and how that differed from what some of these other conferences were hearing that have decided to go forward.”
Postponement seemed imminent, but Monday brought opposition from the league’s most visible coaches. Harbaugh in bullet points outlined Michigan’s success in managing COVID-19, ending his statement with a Teddy Roosevelt quote: “Our place will not be among the cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” Day and Franklin implored the league to push forward with camp and take advantage of a flexible schedule model. Frost said Nebraska was “prepared to look at any and all options” for fall competition if the Big Ten postponed.
A conference that prides itself on unity, from equal revenue sharing to public solidarity, was showing cracks.
“That’s a tough thing to see,” a Big Ten source said. “Behind the scenes, we hash it out and argue, but when we come out with a decision, we’ve got to be together. That’s what a team does, what a coaching staff does, what a conference does.”
Entering Tuesday, the big question was whether the backlash had changed the presidents’ position. After a morning meeting, the answer came in: The fall season had been postponed.
“You make complicated decisions in your life, you never expect everyone is going to be happy,” Warren said. “The impacts off this are devastating, but this again reiterates that we are putting our student-athletes at the top of our list from a health and safety standpoint. This is who it’s about.”
Even though Smith favored pushing forward and felt Ohio State could safely manage the risks, he wasn’t surprised by the league’s decision.
“I kind of felt like if it wasn’t going to happen now, it’s going to happen in late August,” he said. “It was just a matter of time. When you’ve got a number of people involved in the process, you’re leaning heavily on your medical experts. We felt very comfortable that we had protocols in place, but we’re part of the consortium and always have been and respect that.”
The aftershocks of the Big Ten’s decision lingered. Frost and Nebraska administrators released a statement expressing their extreme disappointment. Warren, when asked if the Cornhuskers could still pursue other fall options, told Yahoo Sports, “No. Not and be a member of the Big Ten Conference.”
Michigan president Mark Schlissel, a medical doctor with expertise in immunology, tweeted that there are “too many poorly understood health & safety concerns unique to intercollegiate athletics to move forward at present.”
On Wednesday, Day doubled down on exploring fall competition options before Smith confirmed that none existed for Ohio State. Nebraska’s chancellor and system president released a statement on Wednesday affirming the school’s commitment to the Big Ten. Several athletic directors are defending Warren, who began leading the league just months before the pandemic and consistently prioritizes student-athlete health and welfare.
“How do you walk into managing a pandemic and lead 14 different institutions through it, and [have] everybody feel good about that decision-making process?” Smith said. “He’s done the best that he can do, like anyone in that spot, trying to understand the different inputs coming from ADs, presidents, student-athletes, parents, medical people, coaches. He’s got everything. He’s kind of in the middle of it, like every commissioner.”
Day and other coaches have turned their attention to the spring, an option that hadn’t generated much discussion in the league until this week. Purdue coach Jeff Brohm on Thursday unveiled his plan for spring and fall seasons in 2021, telling ESPN of the decision to postpone, “It made me angry, and it made me want to just do something about it. That’s why I put this together.”
Several Big Ten sources told ESPN they were especially disheartened over how vaguely the league proposed the idea of spring football. “We hadn’t spent any time on it,” an administrator said. “None.”
“The only thing they talked about was that the spring season was a possibility,” a second administrator said. “The language wasn’t very reassuring, and that makes it a lot harder to protect our kids and keep them engaged during this time. You’d like to see something along the lines of, ‘We’re going to pour out all of our resources to play in the spring.’ It just doesn’t sound like the [Big Ten] was on the same page in a lot of these matters.”
By the time word started circulating Tuesday that the Big Ten had voted to postpone, the Pac-12 CEO group — the conference’s decision-making board made up of each school’s president or chancellor — was roughly an hour into its meeting, which would culminate with a vote on the fall sports seasons. If Pac-12 leaders had any concern about becoming the first Power 5 conference to pull the plug on the fall, the Big Ten’s timing removed that from the equation. A Pac-12 administrator told ESPN before the vote that there had been concern about being the first major conference to postpone because of the league’s weakened football brand.
“We knew there was a parallel track with the Big Ten also discussing this,” said Oregon president Michael Schill, who chairs the CEO group. “We feel good about our decision. We would have made it independent of the Big Ten. We respect the institutions in the Big Ten; many of them have the same values that we have, and we’re happy they’re joining us.”
The Big Ten’s decision, and the process that led to it, exposed some divisions, but that wasn’t the case on the West Coast, where Pac-12 coaches and administrators backed the league’s unanimous vote to postpone. The night before the CEO group met, the conference gathered athletic directors and football coaches to brief them on where things stood going into Tuesday’s vote. Nothing in that call was definitive, but there also was nothing to tamp down the growing sentiment the league was likely to postpone the fall seasons. As a league source said, “It’s not a matter of if we canceled the season. It was when.”
“The medical information really hadn’t changed, the advice hadn’t changed since Day 1,” Washington State athletic director Pat Chun told ESPN. “As we got closer to full contact and what we had going on in some of the other states in and around our league, we just got to a place where the medical advice was clear as day that we couldn’t go forward as a conference. And also, we were learning about the potential cardiac and respiratory issues. There’s no certainty, with myocarditis, the prevalence, there’s so much uncertainty that we couldn’t see a path going forward.”
What seemingly cemented the Pac-12’s decision was a 12-page set of return-to-play guidelines compiled by the conference’s student-athlete health and well-being board. The board, which has medical experts representing each school, expressed concern about the prevalence of the virus in the conference footprint, along with both a lack of understanding about the long-term risks associated with COVID-19 and an inability to test frequently enough for comfort.
The document includes a recommendation in bold type: “At this time, we do not recommend initiating contact or competition activities.” The board didn’t recommend postponing the fall season, but the criteria it outlined to move forward would have been difficult to meet. There was a strong belief not enough would change in the upcoming weeks that would necessitate holding off on a decision.
Like the Big Ten, the Pac-12 recently announced its fall football schedule, but COVID-19 rates in Arizona and Southern California decreased the likelihood of starting camp and games on time.
“From the start, we were going to be down a third of the teams in our conference,” Arizona president Robert Robbins told the Arizona Daily Star. “That proved problematic.”
The theme in the days since the Pac-12 announced its decision has been “uncertainty.”.
In a letter sent to USC boosters, athletic director Mike Bohn wrote, “Undoubtedly, there has been much debate and discourse about the appropriate course of action for the season, but in my view no reasonable-minded individual could have listened to the facts presented by our medical experts and believed that we had any other option at this time, especially if we are sincere about our stated unequivocal prioritization of student-athlete safety.”
In other parts of the country, though, medical advisory groups have landed on different conclusions, leading to questions about how these experts can differ with mostly the same information. That split speaks to the uncertainty the Pac-12 has underscored.
Chun said the week has been among the most emotional of his career, especially when he had to inform fall sports athletes over Zoom that their seasons had been postponed. More painful decisions will come around finances. But he has no issues with the Pac-12’s approach.
“We talked about always doing things with health and safety in mind; that’s why we leaned in on the medical side of things and why we ended up where we were at,” Chun said. “There’s just been a high level of communication, collaboration and cooperation in the Pac-12, especially since the pandemic began, which guided us to the decision we made.”
Only hours after the Big Ten and Pac-12 made difficult decisions to postpone their fall sports seasons to the spring, the Big 12 board of directors held a conference call on Tuesday night that would ultimately decide the fate of fall sports for their teams — and perhaps also those in the ACC and SEC.
The ACC and SEC publicly stated their intentions to push forward with football this fall shortly before the Big 12 meeting started. Sources told ESPN the SEC was poised to proceed without the Big 12, but that might not have been the case with the ACC.
“The ACC wants to have a majority, 60% of the P5 conferences still playing,” a Group of 5 athletic director said. “That’s why the Big 12 matters to the SEC, because if you lose the Big 12, then the SEC loses the ACC.”
The Big 12, which lost Nebraska to the Big Ten, Colorado to the Pac-12 and Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC a decade ago and was considered the most disjointed of the Power 5 leagues, was suddenly the linchpin in college football being played this fall.
“I think the SEC was ready to go at it alone with the ACC,” an ACC administrator said. “I’m not sure that was the same case for us. I’m not sure our presidents and chancellors were ready to be on an island with the SEC if everybody else was shutting it down.”
Sam Khan Jr. explains how the Big 12’s decision to move forward with football in the fall creates some optimism for a 2020 college football season.
Going into the Big 12 call, the league was split on whether to move forward toward a fall season or postpone, sources told ESPN. There was no consensus across the 10-member league. Before the group convened, it truly felt like a coin flip.
Less than an hour before the Big 12 call, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades joined SicEm365 Radio in Waco, Texas, and said, “My sense is that if we voted today it would be a really, really close vote.”
Rhoades said that if he were advising the league, he would ask them to pause and wait a little longer before making a decision, so that they had as much information as possible.
That would not be the case. The meeting, which lasted for more than two hours, consisted of more than three dozen people: Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and a few conference staffers, a handful of doctors, plus presidents, athletic directors and team physicians from each of the league’s 10 schools.
Around 8:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, word began to leak that the Big 12 voted to move forward with playing this fall. Texas Tech coach Matt Wells said he had just arrived home when his daughter read it to him off Twitter, “which is so reliable,” Wells joked.
“Our student-athletes want to compete, and it is the board’s collective opinion that sports can be conducted safely and in concert with the best interests of their well-being,” Big 12 board of directors chairman and TCU chancellor Victor Boschini said in a statement. “We remain vigilant in monitoring the trends and effects of COVID-19 as we learn more about the virus. If at any point our scientists and doctors conclude that our institutions cannot provide a safe and appropriate environment for our participants, we will change course.”
It was a sigh of relief for members in the ACC and SEC. Bowlsby said it’s been a long time since he had spoken on a daily basis with ACC commissioner John Swofford and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. “I think de facto we’re in it together, but I don’t know that we’re locked at the hips,” Bowlsby said.
Along with announcing a revised schedule of nine conference games plus one nonconference game, the Big 12 also announced its plans for “enhanced COVID-19 testing,” which will include three tests per week in high-contact sports such as football, volleyball and soccer. Return-to-play protocols will include EKGs, troponin blood tests, echocardiograms and cardiac MRIs to help mitigate concerns about heart issues related to COVID-19.
Bowlsby said the league leaned heavily on medical experts from the University of Kansas and Dr. Michael Ackerman, a genetic cardiologist from the Mayo Clinic, to sort through the medical issues.
“The biggest argument [for playing] is that nobody has told us that it’s poorly advised to go forward and do what we are doing,” Bowlsby said. “If we get to the place where our doctors and scientists say, ‘You know what? You guys have two wheels off the tracks and you’re headed for a train wreck,’ we will pivot that day. If it’s during camp, it’s during camp. If it’s during October, it’s during October. If it’s the week before our championship game, that’s when it is.”
Ackerman’s insight was key in the Big 12’s ultimate decision. The conference’s board, like many others, had questions about myocarditis and the impact it might have on athletes.
“For us, the question was for those student-athletes who test positive. Can they return to competition safely, given the impact the virus has on the heart?” Rhoades told ESPN. “His direction, his opinion, is yes.”
That “yes,” came with a caveat — that physicians do the necessary heart screenings, which were subsequently added to the conference’s return-to-play protocol. But Ackerman’s guidance “provided us with a comfort level that if you test positive, and you go through this screening afterward, it’s his belief — as an expert in this area — that a student-athlete or pro athlete can [safely] return back to competition,” Rhoades said.
Dr. Jonathan Kim, a sports cardiologist at Emory, a team cardiologist at Georgia Tech and a member of the ACC Sports/Exercise Council, was not as optimistic.
“When we diagnose myocarditis in athletes, what we recommend is a minimum of three months of no high-end physical training,” Kim said. “The recommendation is rest, at a minimum of three months up to six months. At that time, based on the clinical presentation, the athlete would undergo a series of repeat testing, which would include imaging, exercise testing, monitoring looking at heart rhythm and potentially other tests. If all of those tests are normal, then the athlete would be allowed back to return to play.”
To help provide guidance, the Big 12 hired Dr. Chris Hostler from Infection Control Education for Major Sports, a group that also advises the NFL on COVID-19. When asked why it’s safe for the Big 12 to move forward, but not the Big Ten and Pac-12, Hostler said, “The better question is, do people feel comfortable in terms of recognizing there’s still risk involved everywhere in society, and do they feel comfortable in having the flexibility to say we can proceed cautiously but may need to step back?”
“Every conference is going to make that decision for themselves and every school is going to make that decision for themselves, about what degree of risk and what degree of flexibility they’re able to maintain,” he said. “Things are so locality-dependent right now that the resources available in one part of the country are totally different than they are in another.”
Both Bowlsby and Rhoades emphasized that just because the green light is on now, it doesn’t mean it will stay that way.
“There’s still a lot of runway between now and that first kickoff,” Rhoades told ESPN. “What we really decided was that we’re going to continue to stay the course that we’re on. At any point in time, if something comes up where we change our mind — that all of a sudden we don’t feel it’s safe — we’re not going to hesitate to say so and stop.”
The ACC and SEC spent most of the week watching what other conferences would do and hoping there would be enough willing to join them in proceeding toward the fall season.
“It was important to have a majority of Power 5 leagues moving forward,” an SEC athletic director said. “We were confident in our plan all along, being patient and continuing to gather as much information as we can. We’re trying to make it work. If it can’t work, and it’s not safe to play in the fall, so be it. At this point, we’re obviously not the only conference that feels like it can work based on what our medical people can tell us, and that’s a good sign.”
Shortly before the Big Ten and Pac-12 postponed their fall seasons, Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist at Duke and chair of the ACC’s medical advisory group, told Sports Business Daily that football and other fall sports could be played safely.
“I do believe you can sufficiently mitigate the risk of bringing COVID onto the football field or into the training room at a level that’s no different than living as a student on campus,” Wolfe told The Daily.
The timing of Wolfe’s comments gave the ACC cover heading into the Big Ten and Pac-12 announcements. Florida State president John Thrasher also spoke before the postponements, saying the ACC presidents had reviewed information about myocarditis and its connection to COVID-19 during a meeting on Sunday.
After the Big Ten and Pac-12 announcements, SEC commissioner Sankey released a statement saying he looked forward to learning more about what led both leagues to pull the plug, while reiterating his comfort with the SEC’s “thorough and deliberate approach.”
The different conclusions leagues and their medical groups drew after studying the impact of the same virus became a subplot of college football’s wild week.
“The joke I heard that’s probably the most prevalent is: What do you get when you mix politics and medical advice? Politics,” a Power 5 athletic director said.
A Power 5 athletic director from a conference that is pushing forward toward the fall season told ESPN it’s not unusual for doctors to have differing opinions.
“Doctors don’t agree. They don’t,” he said. “The mainstream of public opinion thinks there’s only one answer. But there’s multiple answers to the same question. That’s what’s hard in this circumstance, being able to understand that what we’re doing may be exactly correct. What we’re doing may be exactly wrong. We have no idea. But we feel comfortable with where we are from the standpoint of the information we’ve been able to get.”
Both the ACC and SEC forge on, but not without challenges. Thursday was especially rocky in the ACC, as Syracuse players opted out of their third practice because of COVID-19 concerns, Pitt halted practice because several players showed COVID-19 symptoms and three Florida State wide receivers spoke out about possible communication issues regarding testing for the virus.
“We’re going to continue monitoring and if we see things changing, we’re ready to change and be adaptive,” Miami president Julio Frenk said. “We’re not locked into a rigid decision making frame.”
There are looming warnings from the NCAA’s top medical officials and others about what could come.
Oregon State president F. King Alexander, who previously held the same role at LSU, spoke to The Oregonian about the different approaches toward the season from the Pac-12 and the SEC.
Asked what the Pac-12 sees that the SEC doesn’t, Alexander told the newspaper, “I think, probably, reality.”