Keith Strudler: The Big 10 Is Back
Two very predictable things happened today in the landscape of big time college football. First, the Big 10 Conference announced it would in fact play football this fall beginning October 24, reversing their initial decision of postponing until spring. That change seemed fairly inevitable once other Power 5 conferences began league play, leaving the Big 10 increasingly under fire from everyone from boosters to legislators to current athletes on the team. The second predictable thing that happened was that President Trump tried to take credit for the decision, like he had anything to do with it.
Leaving the second distraction aside, today’s decision both changes the narrative about college sports during Covid and raises a whole lot of questions about its place in the landscape of higher ed – at least in signature flagship campuses. In August, two of the five major athletic conferences – the Big 10 and Pac 12 – seemed to clarify how universities would handle sports this fall, establishing that it would simply be too dangerous with too many unknowns. And once they both cancelled, bringing powerhouse programs like Michigan and USC with them, the rest of the academic country would fall in line. Only they didn’t. So while Ohio State explained to their alumni and students why it would be impossible to play football this fall, Clemson got ready for their opener against Wake Forest. And Texas prepped for a conference plus one schedule that opened last Saturday with a 56 point win over UTEP. All the while, Big 10 football country stewed in angst, getting ready to watch a giant keg party from outside the gates. Even as some lauded their conference presidents for putting safety before Saturdays.
But that could only last so long, really until the season started in earnest and Big 10 sports fans – and politicians – watched teams not in the Big 10 play. Which leads us to today, where in a swift and absolute about face, Wisconsin, and Northwestern, and Iowa and Nebraska and everyone else in the conference can take to the gridiron in just over a month. According to conference officials, this comes through the availability of daily rapid testing, something not possible back in August. Officials also talked about guiderails for each program, including a forced break for any team that tests over a 5% positivity rate. So at the most basic level, the Big 10 should be able, in principle, to know when athletes test positive, and when to shut it down.
Obviously, there is a high degree of cynicism from literally anyone who does not directly work for one of these athletic departments. It seems extremely, well, odd that a body of elite academic institutions could say it is simply too unsafe to play, then merely weeks later say that it is. When the virus is, to be clear, still around. It also sounds strange when coaches say it has nothing to do with athletes threating to sue the Big 10 for cancelling or anything to do with lost revenue. Because when people say it’s not about the money, that means it’s definitely about the money.
So what can we take from this reversal of football fortune, one that largely shifts the narrative of the entire past month? There’s a few things to consider. First, there is a difference between football and other college sports, at least at large, revenue earning programs. With all the clamor to get Wisconsin back on the football field, we heard a whole lot less about making sure Nebraska women’s soccer had its fall season. That may insult your view of what college sports should be, but it’s the reality. Second, I don’t think universities are kidding when they said they need football money to keep their athletic departments afloat. Even with a season that will produce far less revenue than usual, without fans in the stands, at least most stands, this money could be one step from preventing the blood bath of cutting Olympic sports, something that began this summer and could run rampant until there’s not a single tennis or swimming team left. And third, do not underestimate the importance of big time college football in the pantheon of social constructs. Anyone who thought the virus might finally be the moment when the sport finally met its logical reform will be severely disappointed. Forget about too big to fail. Big time college football is too big to wait until spring.
Which is why the Big 10, and soon the Pac 12, won’t. Which was about as predictable as you can get.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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