SEC vs. B1G: In a stare-down among college football power brokers, the B1G blinked first
Senior Nebraska cornerback Dicaprio Bootle compared it to a roller coaster ride.
“You get strapped into the seat,” Bootle said Monday during an impassioned plea from Husker players to play college football this fall. “You’re waiting for the conductor to start the ride. That’s how we’ve been kind of this whole summer. They’ve been briefing us on what to do during the ride, what not to do, all that type of stuff.
“Then (the roller coaster) starts going, and you take that slope going up. … Right before you go down, the ride just kind of stops and gets stuck. Now we’re waiting for someone to come and fix the ride, come and rescue us.”
Big Ten players will be waiting for a while. At least until spring, after the conference officially decided Tuesday to postpone fall sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In less than a week, commissioner Kevin Warren and the school administration he works for have gone from leaders to pariahs. From a forward-thinking, flexible schedule to a new, spring-football pseudo-”plan” with way more questions than answers.
In a stare-down among college football’s top power brokers deciding the game’s future in the midst of a global health crisis, the B1G blinked first.
“It became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall,” Warren said in the conference’s official statement.
What changed between today and last week’s schedule release?@BTNDaveRevsine asked Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren following the decision to postpone the 2020 football season: pic.twitter.com/cFIX83PPVf
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) August 11, 2020
The Pac-12 wasn’t far behind Tuesday. The SEC, Big 12 and ACC appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach even after Tuesday’s news.
But in a world where prestige, cultural relevance and TV money rule the day, this ever-fluid situation turned into a PR and liability battle over the weekend into Monday, when B1G presidents reportedly met to discuss the viability of a fall season and voted 12-2 to cancel it. It pitted the B1G and SEC, considered by many the strongest leagues in terms of value and prestige, against each other, with their Power 5 counterparts also at the table.
Warren announced a Sept. 5 start date and 10-game schedule last week with more than four dozen “collapsible” games that could be moved around during a pandemic. Sankey sat back and said his conference would take as much time as possible to gather data before playing, going with a tentative Sept. 26 start date and their own SEC-only slate.
The B1G looked like a leader, paving the way for potential fall football, lessened athletic department revenue shortfalls, recouped losses by local businesses, happy players itching for a season. Sankey caught flack for canceling nonconference play and shrinking the window to get games in.
What a difference a week makes.
Now we have a social media firestorm criticizing Warren for being the first to stick his neck out while Sankey, again, discerns his next move. We have presidents stepping in, essentially throwing a soaking blanket on any hope for a season that came out of last week’s schedule announcement and health protocols. Bluebloods like Michigan and Ohio State expressing disappointment and lobbying for a fall season. One school, Nebraska, is still threatening to go rogue with its own schedule this fall.
Look, it’s coronavirus. Students are starting to return to campuses in waves. Maybe a couple of weeks from now, every conference has made the same decision as the B1G and there is no fall college football season, period. Or perhaps the SEC does move forward and has to pull the plug midway through the fall. Or a player is hospitalized, a large-scale outbreak hits a team or team(s) or, in a worst-case scenario, a player dies.
But what if the SEC and others are able to press on and get a fall season in? The potential implications are staggering.
It’s a luxury to criticize. It’s also a luxury to avoid making decisions like Warren, Sankey, college presidents and ADs are facing with so many unknowns and the fall semester rapidly approaching.
More than 5 million Americans have tested positive for COVID-19. More than 163,000 have died. There are reports of heart complications associated with the disease, including in B1G athletes. You can acknowledge this thing is serious and also ask how we got to where we’re at considering where we were a week ago.
But how did we go from in control to spiraling out of it so quickly?
Maybe you subscribe to the notion there’s more at play here. That administrators are terrified of players’ recent attempts at greater representation as institutions ask them to risk their safety for the good of athletic departments and football-made communities, all while clinging to long-held ideals of amateurism.
The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. But Warren insists this remains about player safety.
“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Warren said in the B1G statement.
In his interview with BTN moments later, Warren spoke rather vaguely when asked what advice he received from the B1G’s Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases that informed Tuesday’s decision.
“It’s one thing to make plans and it’s another thing to put those plans into place,” he said.
Sankey, in the meantime, went on Dan Patrick’s radio show Tuesday morning and said his own medical counsel has given the SEC the green light to proceed, albeit with caution.
Best advice I’ve received since COVID-19: “Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day.” @SEC has been deliberate at each step since March…slowed return to practice…delayed 1st game to respect start of fall semester..
— Greg Sankey (@GregSankey) August 10, 2020
Sankey later released an official statement. It read, in part:
“I look forward to learning more about the factors that led the Big Ten and Pac-12 leadership to take these actions today. I remain comfortable with the thorough and deliberate approach that the SEC and our 14 members are taking to support a healthy environment for student-athletes.”
How about a televised roundtable with each Power 5 Conference’s medical experts? It might be the only major college football back-and-forth we see in 2020.
It’s a lesson in contrasting approaches to an impossible problem.
The SEC has gone with the slow play. A “responsible plan,” Sankey called it in a Tuesday ESPN report.
The B1G thought it had one, too. Until it didn’t. Now it has to answer questions about eligibility, recruiting and the idea of playing two major college football seasons in the same calendar year. How football in the spring is safer than football in the fall. How football can be postponed but in-person fall classes and campus events can go on.
It’s a dang mess.
But if we’ve learned one thing this year, it’s that anything with COVID-19 as a root cause is subject to change. Predictions are as good as guesses, and it’s easy to be an armchair analyst one day only to realize a week later unpredictable circumstances have turned previous perceptions upside down.