Rob Oller: Time for Buckeye Nation to cancel the COVID cancellation blame game

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
For the second time this season, Ohio State football players did not need their helmets on a game day.

Another Ohio State football game got canceled, but the blame game is still going strong.  

Buckeye Nation, put away your torches and pitchforks and repeat after me: COVID-19 is the bad guy. Not the NCAA. Not the Big Ten. Not Ryan Day or players who tested positive for COVID, which led to the cancellation of Saturday’s game at Illinois. Not Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith.

It’s the virus’s fault. Deal with it. I am. Or at least I’m trying, even if it is easier said than done. The natural inclination is to point fingers and bellow, “This is a consequence of the Big Ten botching things by restarting the season too late. The conference should have built buffer weeks into the schedule.”

Or: “The conference’s 21-day 'sit out' rule after testing positive is unfair, as is the six-game minimum to qualify for the Big Ten championship.”

Or: “Told you so. This is why the season should never have happened in the first place.”

All those chest-thumping declarations feel good to deliver, because we want to be right. Check that, we know we are right. Me, you and the loudmouth cousin who wouldn’t shut up during Thanksgiving dinner or refused to mute himself during the family Zoom call. 

It doesn’t help that our natural inclination is to find scapegoats for things we cannot control. And COVID is the ultimate wild child. It doesn’t care if you label it the Grim Reaper or a hoax. It doesn’t need our approval to disrupt normalcy. As the kids say, “Virus gonna virus.”

Where does that leave us? Helpless to harness a pandemic that doesn’t play fair. So we lash out, some rationally, others not so much. My message for conspiracy crazies who think the Southeastern Conference is manipulating COVID testing to keep Ohio State out of the College Football Playoff: Go back to your bunker.

To be clear, expressing an educated opinion is different from crying personal foul. Holding higher-ups accountable is not attacking the system simply because it does not align with your worldview biases. But the line easily blurs.

In August, I pushed for an early to mid-October return to the Big Ten season, reasoning that if the virus doubled-down, as medical experts predicted, an earlier restart would allow the conference to play more games by building off weeks into the schedule as a cushion against COVID.

Instead, after consulting with school presidents, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren opted for an Oct. 23 re-launch. I still think the conference dropped the ball, but was my motivation based on a chance to cover a potential championship team or more wanting college athletes to play as many games as possible? I want to believe it mostly was the latter.

Regardless, there is no changing the past, so time to move on, and not by boo-hooing about the Buckeyes having it worse than other teams.

Even if it’s true the Buckeyes, at 4-0, have more to lose because they stand the best chance of making the playoff, Ohio State should avoid the temptation to bully the Big Ten into reconsidering its virus eligibility rules. Selfishness is a bad look in the midst of the worst pandemic in 100 years.

About those rules: Teams must play a minimum of six games to be eligible for the Big Ten championship on Dec. 19. With only Michigan State and Michigan left before then, Ohio State is at risk of not meeting that minimum. Recall that Wisconsin and Maryland missed back-to-back games after COVID spikes hit both programs, which is why OSU chose to cancel against Illinois even though it did not have to.

What? This may inflame the accusations and anger out there, but under Big Ten medical rules the Buckeyes actually could have played the Illini. The conference requires programs to suspend practice and competition for seven days when surpassing thresholds in both test positivity rate (number of positive tests divided by total tests administered) and population positivity rate (number of positive individuals divided by total population at risk). The Buckeyes exceeded the 7.5% population rate but not the 5% test positivity rate, meaning they had the green light to play.

But Ohio State’s twofold agenda — keep players, coaches and staffers safe and get back on the field against Michigan State on Saturday — meant treating COVID-19 with the respect it demands.

Smith on Saturday said the Buckeyes need to get ahead of the virus before it does more damage.

“The strategies we will put in place today and tomorrow and the next day is all with an effort to insure their safety and possibly give them a chance to compete next weekend,” Smith said. “It’s not about the Big Ten tournament or the championship game. It’s not about the CFP.”

You can believe Smith or not. Just don’t blame him for canceling the game. Blame the virus.