The Big Ten Conference won’t be playing football and other sports this fall because of concerns about COVID-19, officials announced Tuesday, ending two days of speculation.
The official announcement comes two days after various media reports emerged that said the conference had decided to call off the fall sports season. Indiana University and Purdue University are Big Ten members.
The decision comes six day after the conference, which includes historic powerhouse programs such as Ohio State University, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State, released a revised conference-only football schedule that it hoped would help it navigate a fall season amid the pandemic.
The fall sports in the decision are men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, football, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball.
The conference said it would continue to evaluate a number of options regarding the sports, including the possibility of competition in the spring. Decisions regarding winter and spring sports will also continue to be evaluated.
The conference said Tuesday that it relied on the medical advice and counsel of the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee.
“Our primary responsibility is to make the best possible decisions in the interest of our students, faculty and staff,” said Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro, chairman of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors, in a written statement.
Speculation has run rampant for several days that the Big Ten was moving toward the decision. On Monday, coaches throughout the conference tried to push back the tide, publicly pleading for more time and threatening to look elsewhere for games this fall.
The Big Ten became the first Power Five Conference member to yield to the pandemic but might not be the last. Other Power Five members include the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference and Southeastern Conference.
On Saturday, the Mid-American Conference became the first among 10 leagues that play at the highest tier of Division I college football to cancel fall sports. Ball State University plays in the MAC. The Mountain West Conference followed suit on Monday.
The Big Ten touts itself as the oldest college athletic conference in the country, dating back to 1896 when it was called the Western Conference, and its schools have been playing football ever since. It became the Big Ten in 1918 and grew into a football powerhouse.
The 14 Big Ten schools span from Maryland and Rutgers on the East Coast to Iowa and Nebraska out west. Not only has it been one of the most successful conferences on the field but off the field it has become one of the wealthiest.
The Big Ten, with its lucrative television network, distributes about $50 million per year to its members.
With the Big Ten’s decision, 41 of the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools have either said they will not play this fall or are in conferences that have made that decision.
In addition to the conference cancellations, the University of Massachusetts, an FBS independent in football, announced on Tuesday that it was canceling its season. Last week, the University of Connecticut became the first FBS program to shut down its 2020 season, which would have been its first as an independent. Old Dominion, a member of Conference USA in most sports including football, canceled all fall sports Monday.
Players, coaches, lawmakers and President Donald Trump expressed support for playing this fall, while others have doubted that they can the practice and play safely amid a pandemic. Because college football players are amateurs, they do not have a players’ union that makes them a formal part of the decision-making process. As uncertainty about the season grew in recent days, many players and coaches publicly pushed for playing this fall.
“Our university is committed to playing no matter what, no matter what that looks like and how that looks,” University of Nebraska Coach Scott Frost told reporters Monday afternoon. “We want to play no matter who it is or where it is. So we’ll see how all those chips fall. We certainly hope it’s in the Big Ten. If it isn’t, I think we’re prepared to look for other options.”
The Big Ten’s decision could ripple across college football as other conferences engage in similar conversations about whether a season can be safely held. The Big Ten, which consists of 14 schools spanning 11 states, was the first of the Power Five conferences to announce an adjustment to its 2020 football season by shifting to a conference-only schedule. The Pac-12 and SEC followed suit with the same plan, while the Big 12 and ACC decided to keep one nonconference game on each school’s schedule.
The broadcast rights for football generate millions of dollars for the Big Ten’s athletic departments, and schools across the country have projected major deficits in the wake of the pandemic. The University of Wisconsin, for instance, recently announced a fundraising campaign that said the athletic department expected to face a revenue shortfall of more than $100 million if the season was canceled and a deficit of $60 million to $70 million if the team played with limited fans.
Frost said Nebraska’s athletic department would suffer a $80 million to $120 million hit without a football season. In many athletic departments, the revenue from football covers the operating costs of all the nonrevenue programs the school offers.
As the Big Ten moved toward football season, which was set to begin the weekend of Sept. 5, the conference developed guidelines to limit the risk of playing. During the season, the Big Ten planned to test athletes and personnel twice a week. Anyone who had been in close contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus had to quarantine for 14 days—an effective measure in controlling the spread of the virus but one that sounded alarms about the feasibility of a season. Through contact tracing protocols, even a small number of positive cases on a team could require a large chunk of players to sit out for two weeks.
While Warren has expressed confidence in the conference’s health and safety protocols, he hasn’t shied away from acknowledging the uncertainty around holding a football season this fall.
“We may not have sports in the fall,” Warren said in July after the Big Ten announced its plan for conference-only schedules. “We may not have a college football season in the Big Ten.”
When the conference announced each team’s week-by-week schedule a month later, Warren repeated the sentiment: “There’s no guarantee that we will have fall sports or football season.”
By Tuesday, six days after those schedules were released, the Big Ten canceled the fall season, a decision voted on by the conference’s university presidents.
Football players returned to their campuses in June for voluntary workouts held in small groups. Michigan State and Rutgers each had to quarantine their entire team after a spike in cases inside their programs. Big Ten teams resumed practice last week, but the conference announced Saturday morning that until further notice, football players could only practice with helmets and no pads. With four weeks until the start of the season, the conference’s statement said, “We understand there are many questions regarding how this impacts schedules, as well as the feasibility of proceeding forward with the season at all.”
Unlike in professional sports, college football programs cannot keep their players inside an insular environment that limits contact with the public. Instead, these athletes would have, in some cases, attended in-person classes with their peers before congregating with their teammates for meetings and practices.
Football players from the Pac-12, Big Ten and Mountain West released statements asking their conferences for improved health protocols. More than 30 Power Five football players, including at least 13 from the Big Ten, have already chosen to opt out of the 2020 season. The long-term effects of the virus are still unknown, and health experts are worried about covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, affects the heart.
Players from the Power Five schools, including Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, shared a unified message on social media Sunday night with the hashtag #WeWantToPlay. Trump retweeted Lawrence’s post and added: “The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled. #WeWantToPlay.”
Multiple Big Ten coaches publicly expressed their desire to play this fall. Ohio State football coach Ryan Day tweeted Monday afternoon, “Swinging as hard as we possibly can right now for these players!! This isn’t over!” The official Twitter accounts for Ohio State football and Michigan football retweeted multiple posts from players and coaches who were in favor of a fall season.
But university presidents, who leaned on medical professionals for advice, ultimately made this decision. And for those Big Ten leaders, the risks of this virus that the country has yet to contain was enough to topple the season.