Yet again in 2020, we find our selves in unprecedented times. As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on our daily lives, our plans for the fall took another blow on Thursday as the Big Ten Conference announced fall sports would play only conference matchups in 2020.
We are facing uncertain and unprecedented times, and the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches, game officials, and others associated with our sports programs and campuses remain our number one priority.
To that end, the Big Ten Conference announced today that if the Conference is able to participate in fall sports (men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, football, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball) based on medical advice, it will move to Conference-only schedules in those sports. Details for these sports will be released at a later date, while decisions on sports not listed above will continue to be evaluated. By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions, the Conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic.
This decision was made following many thoughtful conversations over several months between the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors, Directors of Athletics, Conference Office staff, and medical experts including the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee.
In addition, the Conference announced that summer athletic activities will continue to be voluntary in all sports currently permitted to engage in such activities. Furthermore, Big Ten student-athletes who choose not to participate in intercollegiate athletics at any time during the summer and/or the 2020-21 academic year due to concerns about COVID-19 will continue to have their scholarship honored by their institution and will remain in good standing with their team.
While Big Ten member institutions continue to rely on the most up-to-date medical information to establish the best protocols for voluntary workouts on their campuses, in compliance with local and state regulations, the Conference is working with the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee to finalize Conference-wide protocols.
As we continue to focus on how to play this season in a safe and responsible way, based on the best advice of medical experts, we are also prepared not to play in order to ensure the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes should the circumstances so dictate.
The announcement comes after the ACC announced earlier in the day that conference would delay the start of fall athletics until at least September 1 and just a day after the Ivy league announced they were suspending all fall sports until January 1. Ohio State announced they were pausing voluntary on-campus workouts yesterday as well.
In response to the conference announcement, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta put out his own statement:
We fully support the actions being taken by the Big Ten Conference, knowing that the health, safety, and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches, and staff is the top priority. The past few months have entailed numerous conversations between my conference colleagues, Commissioner Warren and our Big Ten presidents, as we have worked to navigate the challenges associated with this pandemic. The uncertainties have been difficult on our student-athletes and coaches and I appreciate their continued understanding of the situation. I am grateful for our fans who are also waiting for direction. While many uncertainties still exist, today’s decision will provide the greatest amount of flexibility as we move forward.
There are implications abound, both within the Big Ten conference and around the college athletics landscape. First, it’s highly likely the Big Ten won’t be alone in this action. It’s unlikely we see any college football this fall until Labor Day and when we do, it’s not likely we’ll see any cross-conference matchups.
That means there will be fewer opportunities for bragging rights across conferences. That’s particularly important for Hawkeye fans who will not see a Cy-Hawk game this fall.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is the impact this will surely have on smaller conferences. Northern Iowa, for instance, was slated to come to Iowa City in week 1 this fall. That’s a pay game for the Panthers, whose athletics department budget relies on those pay checks from Power 5 conferences at the start of each season to make ends meet. Budgets around the country are already notably tight with Stanford cutting nearly a third of all their sports programs and Iowa, among several others, announcing pay cuts for coaches and staff.
In addition to losing games against Iowa State and Northern Iowa, the Hawkeyes will lose a matchup against the Northern Illinois Huskies. That’s particularly noteworthy given the recent transfers to Iowa from former Huskies Jack Heflin and Matt Lorbeck.
Beyond the schools, the athletes themselves are in trying times. While workouts are all technically voluntary, the word voluntary for college athletes doesn't really exist. Around the country, student-athletes are being put at risk of infection to prepare for a season that might not even happen at all.
Because of that risk, the Big Ten announced athletes who choose to opt out of participating this season will retain their eligibility and remain in good standing with their schools for purposes of scholarships. What remains unclear is how the shortened schedule will impact the redshirt rules, which had allowed players to participate in up to 4 games and still redshirt since 2018.
What is clear is the situation is still evolving and there are sure to be more changes. As noted, the Big Ten-only schedule allows the conference the most flexibility to address any potential shifts in the environment as time passes. That may mean playing all division games up front or potentially staggering divisional and cross-divisional matchups to provide a buffer in the event of a team outbreak.
Whatever the case, it’s clear we are again in uncharted territory.