In the Big Ten, football gets to play by its own rules
By Billy Witz
Members of several fraternities and sororities at Michigan State University have been ordered to isolate for two weeks after a coronavirus outbreak on campus. Wisconsin’s chancellor urged students to “severely limit” their movements after more than 20 percent of its tests on students over Labor Day weekend came back positive. At Iowa, where the fall semester is less than a month old, more than 1,800 students have tested positive, and there are a whopping 221 cases in the athletic department alone.
It was against this backdrop that the Big Ten Conference, with the virus running rampant on many of its campuses, reversed course Wednesday and declared it would play football starting next month. Conference leaders, who only five weeks ago postponed the fall season until the spring, said the science related to the pandemic had changed so much over the intervening 36 days that it was now safe to play.
The way the decision was met with hallelujahs in locker rooms, coaches’ offices, the warrens of social media occupied by die-hard fans and even at the White House — to say nothing of congratulations offered up by several reporters on a conference call with Big Ten leaders — it might have seemed as if Jonas Salk had risen and delivered a new vaccine.
Alas, a more fitting image is this: the conference presidents, fitted with fire-retardant suits, ordering another cocktail while their houses continued to burn.
When Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro, was asked how, with freshmen and sophomores prohibited from living on his university’s campus and classrooms closed for the fall semester, it was appropriate for his football team to be playing, he replied, “That’s a great question.”
He then made a cursory effort to answer it.
“I did grapple with it, thinking that part of the campus is closed and maybe you shouldn’t play football until the campus, we hope, is open for the winter quarter, the first week in January,” said Schapiro, the chairman of the Big Ten’s council of presidents and chancellors. “At the end of the day, I found the arguments that if we could do it safely, we can play football and the other fall sports, there’s no reason not to go ahead and do it.”
As it turns out, Schapiro was one of 11 presidents who flipped on the original decision. That group included Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway, a former Stanford football player who told NJ.com last week that he was worried about where the virus was headed next month, and that the push forward by the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 conferences had revealed a warped set of values. (A Rutgers spokesman said Holloway was unavailable for an interview Wednesday.)
The science that turned the decision, the conference said, centered on one item: the Big Ten’s ability to procure rapid testing capabilities, which it said would allow colleges to test their football players (and other fall athletes) on a daily basis. Rapid tests, though, have been found to be less accurate than other versions. They can miss infected people carrying small amounts of the virus, producing false negatives, or detect people at the tail end of infections who have only dead virus, producing false positives. Daily testing could help weed out those inaccuracies.
Commissioner Kevin Warren, who was filleted last month for cloaking the decision not to play in secrecy, promised transparency Wednesday. And then, a few minutes later, he refused to say who the Big Ten was contracting with for the testing.
When the Pac-12, another of the nation’s biggest conferences, pulled the plug on football on Aug. 11, only hours after the Big Ten, it at least cited three criteria for a potential return to play: improved testing, more information on virus-related side effects (including heart inflammation) and a reduction in community infection rates.
The Big Ten said it was addressing many of those concerns. In addition to daily testing, it said it would require all coronavirus-positive athletes to undergo a cardiac MRI exam. But those expensive machines rarely exist in college towns; the closest one to Penn State, for example, is a nearly two-hour drive away, in Harrisburg, Pa.
“Access would be a major issue if we said every athlete needed to get one of these,” said Dermot Phelan, a cardiologist in Charlotte, N.C., who is an adviser to the Atlantic Coast Conference, whose teams have already begun their seasons.
As for community infection rates, there are no stated thresholds that would keep the Big Ten from playing. James Borchers, the team doctor at Ohio State, who directed Saturday’s medical presentation to the conference’s presidents, said the important metrics are the team positivity rate (among the players) and the population positivity rate (players, coaches, staff). If the players test above 5 percent or the population rate exceeds 7.5 percent over a seven-day period, football activities must cease for seven days, the league said.
But John Swartzberg, an infectious disease professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, said that broader campus and community infection metrics should be essential in determining whether sports are played. Swartzberg, who said he was speaking for himself and not the Pac-12 medical advisory board, of which he is a member, added: “To assume otherwise essentially says that the athletes are living in a bubble completely unrelated to the surrounding community.”
Of course, that seems to be precisely the point for the Big Ten.
By now, it is a hollow exercise to wonder if the same testing regimen being created for and offered to the Northwestern football team will be presented to Northwestern’s theater department or marching band — at least not until they, too, bring in the millions of dollars in television revenue that the athletic department does.
Instead, the Big Ten’s decision to play football this fall — just like those of the other conferences that have returned to the field already — has stripped bare another layer of college football’s veneer. What the pandemic has done is make even more clear how it is past time to replace the term student-athlete with a more contemporary one: essential employee.