Rob Oller | Outside voices helped bend Big Ten to play football

Rob Oller
Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez speaks at a news conference Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, in Madison, Wis. Alvarez announced that he will coach the team in this year's Rose Bowl, replacing former football coach Bret Bielema who took a job as head coach at Arkansas.

The educated voices won. And yet, so did the loudest and most desperate.

After stumbling repeatedly over the past five weeks, the Big Ten finally found its footing and got things right. Or at least less wrong. And it was those outside voices that turned the tide.

There will be Big Ten fall football, or some semblance of it, coming Oct. 23-24 to an empty stadium near you. It won’t feel normal. How could it? Nothing about 2020 is normal. But for Ohio State fans struggling to find autumn routine and rhythm, being able to watch the Buckeyes is a much-needed balm.

Buckeye Nation mostly can thank the educated voices of medical experts for prescribing the healing salve. Without them — including Ohio State team physician Jim Borchers, a key influencer in the decision to restart fall sports — it is almost certain that fall football would not be happening.

Borchers co-chairs the medical subcommittee for the Big Ten’s Return to Competition task force, which was instrumental in changing the minds of the 11 conference presidents who voted on Aug. 11 to postpone fall sports.

Northwestern president Morton Schapiro said Wednesday that updated health information supplied by the medical subcommittee over the previous four days was the turning point in his decision.

“For me, it wasn’t about political pressure or money or lawsuits and wasn’t about what anybody else was doing, it was the unanimous opinion of our medical experts, and that evolved over the course of weeks,” Schapiro said, adding that the medical experts were divided five weeks ago. “Even a week ago I wasn’t convinced to be part of the unanimous decision to move forward.”

Hard stop: I find it interesting that Schapiro would even mention political pressure, money and lawsuits, considering none of those reasons was brought up during Wednesday’s Big Ten news conference. Hmm. Methinks the Prez doth protest too much.

More likely, all of those supposedly outside factors contributed to the change of course from no football to go football. It wasn’t player or parent protests alone that put the squeeze on the presidents to reconsider. It wasn’t just Ohio State coach Ryan Day wondering aloud about the lack of communication between conference and schools or Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields creating a petition to reinstate the 2020 season. It wasn’t only the avalanche of media criticism heaped upon the conference for its lack of transparency.

But the combined effect of those frustration-fueled, desperation-laced passion pleas left a mark. Without them, it is fair to wonder what would have happened. After all, most Big Ten coaches and schools chose not to light up social media in protest.

Get past Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska, whose presidents were the only three to vote on Aug. 11 for football to proceed, and the outcry ranged from so-so to silent. Essentially, Ohio State and a few others made nuisances of themselves. If the Buckeyes weren’t already enjoyed only in small doses by their Big Ten brethren, they certainly are now. Do they care? Nope.

It also helped speed the return-to-play timeline that Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who coached Badgers football for 15 full seasons, is on the subcommittee in charge of season scheduling.

Alvarez, a football man through and through, knew it essential that the Big Ten begin play no later than late October if the conference hoped to be included in the College Football Playoff. Alvarez wanted no part of a spring exhibition season. And with improved testing and contact tracing in place, why wait until November?

Of course, on Wednesday the Big Ten boldly touted itself as a leadership icon despite evidence to the contrary; for the past month the conference resembled a child in need of a helping hand across the street.

To wit: on Aug. 19 Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren was adamant that the conference’s decision eight days earlier not to play fall sports would not be revisited. Yet here we are.

“We needed to show some flexibility,” he said on Wednesday. “One of the things about leadership is it is … the perpetual process of gathering and analyzing information.”

That beep, beep, beep you’re hearing is Warren backing up. But that’s OK. He’s a first-year commissioner learning on the job. The more alarming news, and what tells me the Big Ten still needs to develop some humility, is how the conference press release attempted to spin the October return as an opportunity to learn more about COVID-19 and then share the information with the world.

In other words, take advantage of unpaid human guinea pigs, er, college athletes, for the greater good.

If it sounds like I am being hard on the grand old conference, well, to whom much is given much is expected. In this case, we deserved to expect more.