Rob Oller | Ohio State, Big Ten embark on football season threatened by virus turmoil

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Rob Oller

The Big Ten lab experiment begins this week with fingers crossed that COVID-19 does not explode into scheduling chaos, as it has in other Football Bowl Subdivision conferences, where at least 32 games have been postponed or canceled since late August because of the virus.

If the Big Ten somehow avoids similar scheduling hiccups, it would prove that its “go slow to stay safe” plan was the smarter path to success, having bought time to further study and implement virus protocols and “bubbling.”

The Big Ten and the Pac-12, which also is taking a more cautious approach to navigating the coronavirus pandemic, will be seen as having put health ahead of the hedonism of college football at all costs. Other Power Five conferences, which entered September vowing to play come hell or high infection rates, are paying the price as players and coaches continue to test positive. The Big Ten and Pac-12 can appear enlightened as their school presidents bathe in “I told you so” smugness.

But the Big Ten’s delay tactic also could blow up in its face if the conference comes up against the same virus setbacks happening in every conference that is already playing. As the Big Ten prepares to open with seven games this week, it walks a tightrope with no safety net in the schedule — nine consecutive weeks of games with no wiggle room to move games to open dates.

Unlike the Southeastern Conference, which has built bye weeks into its schedule — thus allowing Florida vs. LSU to be postponed to Dec. 12 and not (yet) canceled — the Big Ten would lose games for good if too many players tested positive.

How many is too many? It’s complicated, but the Big Ten puts itself in danger of schedule turmoil with its impressive yet strict rules to reduce the risk of virus spread. The conference has established a 5% team positivity rate as the baseline for stopping practice and competition for a minimum of seven days. That means on a roster of 105 players it takes only six to test positive at any given moment for the program to shut down. 

How real is the threat of interruption? A California doctor specializing in infectious diseases puts the chances of COVID-19 affecting the Big Ten schedule “at about 50-50.”

John Swartzberg, a professor in the Cal-Berkeley School of Public Health, does not apologize for taking a cautious approach to the virus. 

“I’m in Berkeley, so I know what [Ohioans] are probably thinking,” Swartzberg said, chuckling at the thought of fans in the Midwest rolling their eyes at anything a Left Coaster has to say. But I picked Swartzberg’s brain exactly because he is a Big Ten outsider, not influenced by our region's politics or power struggles.

Swartzberg estimated how many Big Ten players and coaches might test positive at any point of the season, concluding that the number would fairly match the national positivity rate of about 0.65%. With nearly 1,500 players, the Big Ten could expect about 10 to test positive. Staff and coaches push the total number to about a dozen. Individual schools could anticipate about one player/coach/staffer testing positive at any given time. 

Swartzberg applauds the Big Ten’s strict testing protocols; Ohio State tests about 170 people daily within the program. But he predicted human nature ultimately will play out.

“The tools are masking when you can and social distancing when you can, but of course in football you can’t mask and can’t social distance, so you end up in a high-risk sport,” he said. “You’re going to see many more cases in the NFL, and even more for college players, because the incentive for most college players is different than for an NFL player.”

He reasoned that NFL players feed their families, but college players feed on social interaction, the majority having little shot at a professional football career.  

Swartzberg actually does not take a sky-is-falling approach to COVID-19’s effect on college football, stressing that “the chances of going into competition with COVID are exceedingly small.”

But he warned that contagion statistics are based on modeling.

“And modeling would suggest there should not be an outbreak at the White House,” he said. “What society is saying is ‘This is an experiment on student-athletes and trainers, etc., and we’ll see if it works.’ There is a high probability it will work fairly well, but we don’t know that.”

Call it 50-50. Fingers crossed.

Reach Rob Oller at roller@dispatch.com or @rollerCD