The college football soap opera continued Tuesday as presidents of Big Ten schools voted to cancel fall sports — with the possibility of resuming in the spring.
The first actual soap debuted in 1930 on Chicago radio station WGN. Ninety years later, the melodrama coming out of the Windy City is no less saucy. The Big Ten cast of athletic directors, coaches, athletes and university presidents makes for strange — and estranged — bedfellows.
As the 14 Big Ten school presidents gathered to discuss whether to delay, cancel or forge ahead with a fall sports season — with football central to the conversation — the rest of us were left to make sense of it all.
Consider the plot twists:
Adversaries Ryan Day and Jim Harbaugh linked arms — the enemy of my enemy (college presidents) is my friend — or at least bumped elbows to salvage the football season. The Ohio State and Michigan coaches both believe their players are safer inside the practice facility quasi-bubble than if they were free to roam campus without having their football routine to follow COVID-19 health protocols.
There is more than just common sense in some of what they say. Isolate the team, test regularly and the coronavirus is more easily held at bay. University of Illinois data analyst Sheldon H. Jacobson said on Tuesday that not only can college football proceed safely, but that canceling or even playing fewer games can lead to a surge in infections, because players will leave their bubble. We’re about to find out how that works.
Ohio State linebacker Jonathon Cooper gave an impassioned speech to teammates on how wearing a mask and social distancing by staying home instead of going out is a small sacrifice compared with the five years he has put in during practices and weight training.
"This is easy for me," Cooper said.
It was an emotional and impressive display of leadership. But left unanswered is what would happen if the Buckeyes’ bubble were to burst, whether through their own lack of discipline or by playing opponents whose protocols may not be up to snuff? Jacobson stressed that managing COVID-19 risk means playing other "safe" teams.
The other side of the story: We still don’t have a firm grasp on exactly how COVID-19 impacts long-term health, but unquestionably the virus is highly contagious. The argument can be made that playing face-to-face football is asking for trouble. Maybe big trouble.
There also is growing suspicion that the coronavirus is linked to myocarditis, a rare heart condition that according to ESPN.com has been found in at least five Big Ten athletes. Yahoo.com reported that Pac-12 coaches and athletic directors recently received "eye-opening" information about the possible connection between COVID-19 and myocarditis that gives pause to continuing with full-contact practice.
"As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten task force for emerging infectious diseases and the Big Ten sports medicine committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall," Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said.
Now that the Big Ten has made its call, it is up to college presidents to decide the risks of playing now against potentially paying later. You can bet both medical and legal experts are heavily involved in the decision-making, with equally significant differences of opinion.
You know how in soap operas there is the troublemaking sibling? Well, Nebraska coach Scott Frost is threatening to break from long-standing family tradition and go it alone, telling anyone who will listen that the Cornhuskers are committed to playing in the fall even if the Big Ten isn’t.
That independent attitude can’t sit well within conference circles, where loyalty to the collective is paramount. Is Nebraska itching to switch conferences, back to its Big 12 roots? Is it only the opinion of a rogue coach? Stay tuned for more intrigue on "As the Cornhusker Turns."
University presidents are collectively protecting their turf even as side deals are discussed in whispers and nudges. It is politics in action as presidents weigh advice from their medical people against the push from coaches and athletes to play.
Presidents typically refuse to get pushed around by coaches, who naturally favor athletics over academics. But presidents also know that one misstep involving football can permanently damage their term in office.
Former Ohio State president Karen Holbrook is mostly remembered for trying to enforce open-container laws at tailgates. And Michael V. Drake, who retired from OSU in late June — only to become president of the University of California system a week later — got off to a slippery start when he fired marching band director Jon Waters and later suspended coach Urban Meyer for three games in 2018 for failing to properly monitor the off-field actions of an assistant coach.
The kids are demanding their rightful inheritance — to play football. Social media lit up with players from the Big Ten and other conferences posting #WeWantToPlay tweets that touch on everything from player rights to the potential loss of NFL opportunities.
It is a tricky navigation, considering football players are only one segment of the student population. Is it any more unfair for Justin Fields to miss a chance to improve his draft stock than for a foreign language major to miss out on studying abroad? That is for the presidents to decide.
It’s complicated. I wanted to see all sports play this fall, not just football, but schools would have needed to U-turn if — and more likely when — COVID-19 took its inevitable toll as players left the bubble for their dorm rooms and in-person classes.
For now, though, the Big Ten has made its decision, the first Power Five conference to pull the plug. The question becomes whether the drama is ending or just beginning as the second-guessers line up to take their shots.