The Big Ten's decision to reverse course and resume its 2020 fall football season has led to concern among students and public health experts.

The Big Ten's Decision to Resume Fall Football

  • The Big Ten Conference will begin holding football games starting October 23.
  • The NCAA and Big Ten have adopted new COVID-19 health protocols for student-athletes.
  • The decision to resume play raises health and safety concerns for all college students.
  • The Big Ten's reversal put pressure on other major NCAA football conferences.

Founded in 1869, the Big Ten Conference is the oldest and largest NCAA Division I athletic conference in the United States. Today, the conference comprises 14 universities — although its name suggests otherwise — that are primarily located in the Midwest. It includes institutions such as The Ohio State University, Michigan State University, and Purdue University. The Big Ten consists of thousands of student-athletes who compete across 28 men's and women's sports.

Big Ten Schools
Indiana University Bloomington University of Illinois
Michigan State University University of Iowa
Northwestern University University of Maryland
The Ohio State University University of Michigan
Pennsylvania State University University of Minnesota
Purdue University University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Rutgers University University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Big Ten's Decision and the Health Risks of Coronavirus

On August 11, the Big Ten announced that it would be indefinitely postponing all fall athletics as a result of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, but it would consider resuming play in the spring. Relying on advice from a counsel of medical experts, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren proclaimed in an open letter that the health risks related to COVID-19 were too uncertain to safely resume competitive sports and that the decision would not be revisited.

As the first of the major NCAA conferences to postpone fall sports, the decision was met with widespread backlash from coaches, fans, and even players around the NCAA. The Ohio State University's star quarterback, Justin Fields, gathered over 300,000 e-signatures in an attempt to overrule the Big Ten's decision and reinstate the fall football season.

On September 17, the Big Ten Conference reversed its decision to postpone fall sports.

On September 17, the Big Ten Conference reversed its decision to postpone fall sports and announced plans to restart college football in October. Relying on advice from a team of medical experts led by Dr. Chris Kratochvil, an infectious disease expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, conference officials pointed to new safety protocols and advanced screening procedures as the deciding factors to resume play.

While Big Ten officials have remained firm in their stance that advancements in testing were the driving force behind the reversal, the amount of money at stake may also help explain why the Big Ten decided to overturn its initial decision.

As the largest NCAA conference, the Big Ten brings in billions of dollars from television contracts, ticket sales, and endorsements. In 2018, its media contracts brought in an estimated $759 million in revenue alone — the highest amount of any NCAA conference in history. Without fall football, it is estimated that the Big Ten and its member schools would have lost up to $1 billion in revenue.

The Big Ten's Safety Measures and Health Protections

Since the onset of the pandemic, concerns over student-athletes' health and safety have been at the forefront of discussions as the NCAA and its member schools have worked to figure out how to proceed with fall athletics.

In early August, prior to the Big Ten's initial decision to postpone fall college football, more than 1,000 Big Ten football players signed a letter expressing concerns and dissatisfaction with the NCAA's lack of leadership and care for players' well-being as the season neared.

Since announcing that football games will begin on October 23, the Big Ten Conference has attempted to address these concerns by adopting new safety protocols. Some of these include the following:

  • Antigen testing is required daily for student-athletes, coaches, and all other individuals on the field for practices and games
  • Student-athletes who test positive for COVID-19 will undergo extensive cardiac testing and must wait at least 21 days before returning to game competition
  • Practice and competition must stop for at least a week if the team and population positivity rates exceed 5% and 7.5%, respectively

In addition to the medical protocols, student-athletes also have several NCAA well-being protections:

  • Student-athletes reserve the right to opt out of participation
  • Student-athletes are not required to waive their legal rights to participate in athletics
  • Student-athletes will continue to have their athletic scholarships and financial aid honored, regardless of their decision to participate in fall sports
  • Member schools must cover student-athletes' COVID-19-related health costs

Players' Health and Safety Concerns Surrounding COVID-19

While the NCAA and the Big Ten have each adopted plans to address health and safety concerns, both fall short in a few areas. One serious issue with the Big Ten's plan has to do with the long-term medical needs of student-athletes.

Student-athletes have been denied the right to unionize and collectively bargain safety and well-being protocols. They must rely on their schools and athletic conferences — in this case the Big Ten — to create adequate health measures.

While the NCAA's plan does guarantee medical coverage for COVID-19-related health costs, the Big Ten's plan does not specify whether it would provide coverage for any chronic COVID-19-related conditions that may arise in the future.

About one-third of Big Ten athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 have been diagnosed with the heart condition myocarditis.

Currently, the Big Ten does not provide student-athletes with loss-of-value coverage if COVID-19 were to reduce a student-athlete's future contract value, which could prove problematic for those with aspirations to play at the professional level.

This is especially notable after reports surfaced that about one-third of Big Ten athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 have been diagnosed with the heart condition myocarditis. While it's unknown whether this condition will impact these student-athletes later on in life, health experts are urging more cardiac screenings.

In addition, the Big Ten has not guaranteed lifetime healthcare coverage for chronic conditions that may develop as a result of the virus; however, this is hardly surprising considering NFL players were unsuccessful in obtaining lifetime coverage prior to the pandemic.

Potential Issues and Consequences

As the Big Ten prepares to resume fall football, the conference's plan has left many public health experts concerned. With the return of football, on-campus students will almost certainly gather and violate their colleges' social distancing guidelines, increasing the risk of the virus spreading across local communities and campuses.

This could be especially challenging for schools that have already experienced outbreaks or high levels of positive tests. To make matters worse, many schools are allowing tailgating and stadium seating at limited capacity, further encouraging group activities.

Many public health experts are concerned about the Big Ten’s plan to resume fall football.

In addition, the Big Ten's commitment to daily testing for every student-athlete, coach, and team staff member further strains the United States' already limited testing infrastructure. This scale of testing also raises the question as to why universities are not willing to adopt such extensive testing measures for all on-campus students.

The University of Iowa, which hosts more than 30,000 students, is not requiring testing for staff or students, aside from its football players. UI's official statement said the decision was based on a lack of adequate space to conduct safe testing, as well as the significant resources comprehensive testing would require. Since the start of the semester, the school has reported more than 2,100 positive COVID-19 cases among students and employees.

Meanwhile, Purdue University is conducting surveillance testing, which includes a combination of random and weekly tests for students and employees. Since August 1, Purdue has performed more than 46,000 tests and has reported a positivity rate under 3%. However, even with this rigorous level of testing, there is no guarantee that student-athletes won't contract the virus.

Fallout From the Big Ten's Decision

The Big Ten's decision to resume its fall football season also put pressure on other major college football conferences. Following the Big Ten's announcement, the Pac-12 released a statement that officials were working toward a way to allow for "contact practice and a return to competition." Nearly half of the Pac-12's member schools reside in Oregon and California, where state regulations previously restricted universities to hold contact practices.

All top-tier NCAA football conferences are officially on track to play in 2020.

On September 24, the Pac-12 unanimously voted to resume fall football in November, just over a month after it had previously elected to postpone the season. The reversal was partially attributed to a partnership with Quidel — a diagnostic testing company that would provide Pac-12 student-athletes with rapid-result COVID-19 testing. This partnership was enough to secure the confidence of state health officials to lift restrictions and allow for contact practices.

Following the Pac-12's announcement, Mountain West Conference and the Mid-American Conference also reversed their decisions and will resume fall football. Just over a month ago, four of the NCAA's 10 major football conferences did not plan on hosting fall sports. Now, weeks removed from the Big Ten's reversal, all top-tier NCAA football conferences are officially on track to play in 2020.

Feature Image: Quinn Harris / Stringer / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images North America