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Column: How to avoid a dogmatic approach in returning to play

Because hindsight is 20/20.

Parents of Big Ten Football Players Protest Conference Decision to Postpone Football Season Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

I’m going to get real: I thought this weekend was going to be the most miserable experience. Tuning in to watch the ACC and Big 12 play? No Ohio State noon kickoff versus the MAC? No afternoons spent cheering with friends? No thank you. Then there’s the fact the Cleveland Browns had to open up with the Baltimore Ravens, the landing spot for one of my favorite Buckeyes of recent memory, J.K. Dobbins. Spare me.

But the weekend wasn’t actually that bad. In fact, there were numerous reasons for optimism:

  • The Big 12 was laughably bad: Two Big 12 teams, including a ranked Iowa State program, fell to Sun Belt teams Saturday. The Cyclones dropped a 31-14 decision to Louisiana (kudos to the Rajun’ Cajuns), while Kansas State fell 35-31 to Arkansas State.
  • The Browns were t-e-r-r-i-b-l-e. But as several folks pointed out while I sat crying alone on my couch, not every team is the Ravens. And while Baltimore scored a lot of touchdowns, the fact two of them came from Dobbins in his NFL debut isn’t the worst.
  • We have literally every major sport active right now, as well as a few not-major ones. The NFL is back in action, the NBA and NHL are continuing their playoffs, and the MLB remains in play. Plus, we had US Open tennis, golf, soccer and, if you’re into that sort of thing, UFC.
  • There is hope for Ohio State’s quest for the 2021 CFP title. While the Big Ten’s chancellors and presidents did not actually end up voting in their meeting Sunday afternoon, they are expected to vote this week on returning to play, with a projected Oct. 17 kickoff.

Obviously, we’re focusing on the last point here. This weekend, I’ve seen and heard a lot of things which boil down to “the Big 12 and ACC playing proves the Big Ten was wrong in its approach. We should never have cancelled (cough, postponed) the season.”

First, there’s no way to prove this statement as true or false. As discussed in previous columns, there is no college football commissioner, which means there is no single governing body overseeing the return to play plan for football with the exception of the NCAA which, as we’ve seen already, is not super useful in that regard. That means that, when we look at the Power Five, there are five different commissioners with five different sets of schools in five sets of different states who are evaluating five different sets of information.

The lack of transparency in information is something the Big Ten has rightly been critiqued for, especially in regard to sharing data that went into the decision to postpone externally, but also something that could have created a more unified response from the Power Five. By evaluating the same set of information, perhaps all the conferences may have come to the same conclusion. Instead, we’re left with five different medical committees coming to different conclusions.

The bottom line that we got from the Big Ten in August was thus: the conference could not guarantee that it could operate college football safely. Given the rapidly changing information we’re accruing every day, including the advent of rapid response testing, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the conference is able to reconsider its previous decision. Doing so should not be looked at as a cop out or as fixing a previous error. Rather, it’s about updating a decision given availability of new information.

Moving forward, we simply can’t afford to be dogmatic about a particular stance. If there’s anything we’ve learned from COVID-19, it’s that there are more unknowns that we find every day. When we take the dogmatic approach, we become prone to confirmation bias, only seeking information that backs our held beliefs. That stance can be problematic, since it discounts valuable inputs - like those that might influence the return of Big Ten football, or those which might hold back the continuation of college football in other conferences due to safety concerns.

On that note, it’s downright dangerous to ignore new information. In particular, right now, the importance of rapid response testing can’t be undervalued. It’s actually a game changer that gives medical professionals the confidence they need to move forward with a sport that’s as high contact as football. The fact the NFL gets tested every day is indicative of why constant results are necessary. Additionally, the fact that the NBA and NFL have been able to get through practice and games with extremely limited and isolated player infections is viable supporting information.

We need to remember that hindsight is 20/20 (especially in 2020). We are currently in a global pandemic, and it’s easy to point fingers about previous actions (“The conference should never have cancelled! Now we’re just going to get a late start!”). We are all bound by the curse of knowledge, and we constantly forget what it was like to not know the information we know now.

Finally, we must remember that safety does really in fact come first. The Big Ten made its initial decision to ensure the safety of student athletes. Even a revised decision can be further revisited if the conference finds that student athletes’ safety is in danger.