After the Big Ten postponed the fall sports season (not just football) Aug. 11, folks were obviously upset. I know this because Twitter. One of the most vocal groups protesting the decision has been a set of parents of football players from schools across the Big Ten.
Obviously parents want what is best for their children, but they also want their kids to be happy and oh maybe making it to the NFL and achieving childhood dreams might have something to do with it too. But ALSO there’s the health and safety aspect. Playing football is dangerous enough in terms of opportunity for injury, and throwing in a virus which can lead to irreparable heart damage (as we already saw with one unfortunate player from Indiana) might have served to dissuade. It’s tough.
A group of parents traveled to the Big Ten headquarters in Rosemont, Illinois, (right in my backyard!) last week to protest the decision and commissioner Kevin Warren’s decision. The group consisted of about 25 parents, many of them of Ohio State players, and fortunately most of the members of the group appeared to be wearing masks. Randy Wade, father of Ohio State standout defensive back Shaun Wade, organized the event.
One of the reasons the group headed to Illinois was due to the communications challenges, especially delays, from the Big Ten. Warren released an open letter Aug. 19, detailing some of the rationale behind the decision to postpone fall sports. Unfortunately, that decision came Aug. 11, just six days after the conference released a schedule for fall games. It also didn’t help that the letter, while acknowledging the factors that contributed to moving the season, didn’t list the actual data that the university presidents evaluated when making their decision.
It also must be said that there is a difference between postponement and cancellation. Football is not dead, but the communication from the Big Ten, which does not include what a delayed season might look like, certainly makes it feel like it is.
While there are obviously a lot of folks who want football back this fall at whatever cost, the parents who protested in Rosemont were actually more in line with the requests put forth in Justin Fields’ petition last week: communication and transparency.
According to ESPN, Wade stated, “I’m just a dad, and I just want to spark the conversation. We don’t have to play in the fall. We want to play in the fall. We want to do everything we can to play in the fall. We don’t like the way the decision went down by the presidents and not knowing whether they voted, didn’t vote. We don’t like that.”
Wade’s statements were echoed by parents of Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland among others. Much of the request for transparency was rooted in the fact the Big Ten and Pac-12 postponed football, while the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are poised to kick off their seasons as scheduled. The specific requests included a look in on the medical evidence that was evaluated and information on which school presidents voted and for what.
As Wade mentioned above, and a point which was corroborated by many of the other parents, they are not (read: not) asking for football in the fall. They just want answers. It’s also a crowd which acknowledges the devastating effects COVID-19 has had on the country, with Wade opening his remarks with a 17-second moment of silence for the now-more than 170,000 COVID-19-related deaths this year.
I’m not defending the Big Ten here - the conference obviously made some grave errors in its messaging. But here’s the thing: Working in ops at any sports league, including the Big Ten, has to be literally the worst right now, right? Surely, the Big Ten had been operating on two tracks - one in which fall sports happen and one in which they didn’t. The conference had to release the schedule, because it had to operate under the assumption that football could happen. However, we can’t be so naive to pretend the conference wasn’t simultaneously planning for a fall without sports. The strategy was there, but the execution was poor.
The decision to postpone the season continues to look like the right one though, as cases continue to rise nationally, and schools are facing increasingly high challenges as they develop plans to return in-person. (Don’t even try to tell me that because the SEC is still on that the decision looks bad.) On that note, it’s key to remember that these individuals are student athletes, and without the schools themselves, there’s no opportunity to move to the sports part of things.
We’ve already witnessed Notre Dame as a cautionary tale of what returning to in-person classes means from an academic perspective. From what we’ve seen, these cases can spread to the football team’s bubble just as easily as they can to the rest of the student body. As of this writing, nearly 400 students at the university have tested positive for COVID, with many of the cases being traced to two off-campus parties. With an undergraduate student body size of around 8,600, that means 4.5% of students have been infected in just a few short weeks.
There is a mounting body of evidence on the challenges of returning to football, let alone school, in the COVID-19 era. While the decision to postpone sports makes sense in the short run, better transparency and communication would have assuredly led to a better outcome and response to the news than we ultimately got.