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Tom Oates: Big Ten finally gets football right after earlier wrong
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Tom Oates: Big Ten finally gets football right after earlier wrong

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Camp Randall, Big Ten football back

Football will be played inside Camp Randall Stadium this fall, as the Big Ten announced Wednesday that the season will begin the weekend of Oct. 23-24. 

In the end, the Big Ten Conference got to the right place.

How it got there is another story altogether, an embarrassing saga in which the nation’s most prim and proper college athletic conference looked like it didn’t have a clue what it was doing or who was doing it. When the presidents and chancellors made the Big Ten the first major conference to cancel fall football due to the COVID-19 pandemic six weeks ago, the Big Ten started airing its grievances in public, a foreign concept to those who follow the conference.

The presidents and chancellors looked like they were making life-altering decisions without involving anyone from athletics. The coaches, athletic directors and even a few presidents looked like whiny babies who had their toys taken away. And the rookie commissioner looked like the job was simply too big for him.

Still, the decision to pull the plug on football until the spring was hasty and unnecessary and opened a window into the conference, revealing an appalling lack of communication, transparency and leadership in the post-Jim Delany Big Ten. To the outside world, it looked like the Big Ten’s Council of Presidents and Chancellors (COP/C) was arm-wrestling with the conference’s athletic departments over control of football and the COP/C won.

But the important thing is the Big Ten on Wednesday swallowed its pride, reversed its field and ended up where it should have been all along — allowing safety concerns and medical professionals to dictate if football could or even should be played this fall.

Although the slings and arrows are still flying — rightly so, in some cases — the COP/C made the correct call Wednesday when it voted unanimously to resume the football season in late October. It was the right decision for right now, anyway.

To be sure, the Big Ten also made the correct call six weeks ago when it determined playing football wouldn’t be safe for the participants. Given what we knew at the time, it wouldn’t have been safe.

But if this six-month pandemic has taught us anything, it is nothing stays the same for very long. We learn more about the disease and the pandemic daily, causing experts to routinely change their beliefs and approaches.

The mistake the Big Ten made six weeks ago was making a final decision to cancel fall football long before it was forced to make that call. Instead of waiting until more information on the disease and the course of the pandemic was available, the COP/C jumped the gun.

Things have changed, however. Facing an ever-tightening deadline of playing enough games this fall to give the players a quality season and to potentially qualify a team for the College Football Playoff, the Big Ten followed the most recent advice of its medical people and decided to proceed with an eight-game regular season starting Oct. 24 and ending with a conference playoff round Dec. 19.

It is clear from the comments Wednesday the Big Ten’s medical people painted a far different picture than they did six weeks ago, not surprising given how much we’ve learned about COVID during that time. Things such as daily rapid antigen testing and comprehensive cardiac monitoring that weren’t thought of back then will make it easier to manage the spread of the coronavirus and keep everyone as safe as possible. The Big Ten showed it was serious by putting rigid COVID protocols in place, standards that could negatively impact a season that no longer has any wiggle room for COVID-related delays.

The bottom line is the Big Ten’s decision changed because the medical science changed. The doctors had more knowledge and tools at their disposal than they did six weeks ago.

“In the end,” University of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said, “they answered all the questions that the chancellors and presidents had.”

That much is indisputable, but only a fool would believe it was the only reason football will return. Critics immediately said the Big Ten’s about-face was a sign it had caved in to politicians, coaches, players, lawsuits and the almighty dollar, all of which might well have factored into the decision.

Some of the criticism is warranted, but if Big Ten people don’t like it, they have only themselves to blame. The way they handled the events of the last six weeks gave everyone the right to question their motives.

Look closer, however, and you’ll see the COP/C didn’t capitulate on everything. The debate over whether to allow fans in the stands would have been interesting to watch, but the presidents and chancellors, many of whom have raging COVID outbreaks on their campuses, wouldn’t allow it.

The best part of Wednesday’s decision is the players will have a chance to play a meaningful season. For most of us, missing a football season would be inconvenient but would have no lasting effect. But for the players, it might be their one chance to get repaid for years of dedication and hard work. Assuming nothing changes, they’ll get to do what they love to do in the safest possible circumstances this fall.

Other sports leagues have shown games can be played and played safely if people follow the rules. It’s the Big Ten’s turn now. If it can keep everyone safe, there’s no reason it shouldn’t play football.

<&rdpEm>Tom Oates, who recently retired as a full-time columnist, has returned to write occasional columns for the State Journal.</&rdpEm>

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