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’An incredibly sad day’: Ohio State mourns its season after Big Ten cancels football, other fall sports

Bill Rabinowitz
brabinow@dispatch.com
Storm clouds roll through the sky over Ohio Stadium in 2012.

The Big Ten will not play football this fall.

The conference’s presidents and chancellors decided after a lengthy virtual meeting Tuesday that it would be unwise to play the sport — or any other this autumn — because of fears about player safety related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The league will attempt to play in the spring.

The decision not to play came only six days after the Big Ten announced a conference-only schedule, though it cautioned then that the season’s status was precarious.

Within an hour of the Big Ten’s announcement, a second so-called Power Five conference, the Pac 12, also decided to call off fall sports for 2020.

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, who replaced longtime commissioner Jim Delany at the start of the year, declined to give the specifics of the vote by university leaders.

“This was a decision made on a collective basis,” he said.

A university source told The Dispatch on Monday that incoming Ohio State President Kristina Johnson would vote against a measure to cancel the fall season, preferring to delay it instead.

“As a former collegiate athlete whose career in sports was cut short by circumstances beyond my control, I deeply feel the pain, frustration and disappointment that all our players, coaches and staff — and all Buckeye fans — are feeling today,” Johnson said in a statement released Tuesday by the university.

“I will continue to work closely with athletics director Gene Smith, coach Ryan Day and all coaches and other leaders, to return our student-athletes to competition as soon as possible, while staying safe and healthy.”

Smith described it as an “incredibly sad day” for players, citing the work they’ve put in to prepare for the season and their vigilance in adhering to strict protocols regarding the coronavirus.

“My heart aches for them and their families,” Smith said. “President-elect Johnson and I were totally aligned in our efforts to delay the start of the season rather than postpone. I am so grateful to her for all her efforts in support of our student-athletes and a traditional fall season.

“As an institution and as an athletic department, we have a responsibility first and foremost to care for the health, safety and wellness of our students and staff, and I believe we have done that successfully.”

In addition to football, men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball will not be played this fall. The Big Ten said it will consider playing those sports in the spring, as well as football.

Warren, whose son is a football player at Mississippi State, said the spike in COVID-19 cases forced the league’s hand.

“We just believe collectively there’s too much uncertainty at this point in time in our country to encourage our student-athletes to participate in fall sports,” he said in an interview on the Big Ten Network.

“I take this responsibility seriously and will continue to do everything in my power to make sure we put our student-athletes in a position to be empowered and to be elevated — but as people first and as students, and understand they’re not professionals. They are amateur athletes and they deserve an opportunity to be able to participate in a healthy and safe manner.”

The Big Ten said it relied on multiple sources, including its task force on emerging infectious diseases and the Big Ten sports medicine committee, in making the decision.

The decision came after reports surfaced Monday that the league would decide to cancel the fall schedule. When that word broke, coaches and players at several Big Ten schools, including Ohio State, lobbied to at least delay a decision.

“We cannot cancel the season right now,” Day said during a Monday interview on ESPN, asking for “a little bit of time to keep re-evaluating everything that’s going on.”

The Buckeyes opened preseason training camp last week in preparation for their season, which had been scheduled to begin Sept. 3 at Illinois, and players had been participating in workouts on campus since early June. While the season was hanging in the air, they continued with practice Tuesday morning.

But at various points this summer, some Big Ten teams were prompted to halt pre-camp workouts due to positive COVID-19 tests. In July, the Buckeyes were shut down for a week.

“We’re disappointed,” Smith said. “We felt that we had put in place outstanding protocols. So we felt (playing a season) was a possibility. Wish we could have had a little bit more time to evaluate, but we certainly understand this was the time we had to pull the plug.”

The historic step by the Big Ten means that Ohio State won’t play football in the fall for the first time since 1889.

Since their first season, in 1890, the Buckeyes have played through multiple world-shaping events, including the 1918 flu pandemic, two world wars and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Some of the crises forced games to be canceled or postponed, but an entire fall season never had been put off.

A spring season would, of course, be unprecedented and includes many logistical hurdles that would have to be overcome. First, COVID-19 would have to be contained better than it has been so far. Also, many top players eligible for the NFL draft almost certainly would choose to enter the draft instead of playing college football in the spring.

For Ohio State, that means it’s likely that stars such as quarterback Justin Fields, receiver Chris Olave, offensive guard Wyatt Davis and cornerback Shaun Wade have played their final game as Buckeyes.

During Monday’s interview, Day expressed a willingness to move toward playing a season even if the Big Ten halted its plans for a conference-only schedule.

"We need to look at every option,” Day said. “If that’s the only option at the time, we need to explore."

But it’s unclear if Ohio State would be permitted, or if its leadership would be interested, in adopting an independent schedule. On BTN, Warren declined to answer a question about a Big Ten team potentially playing this fall despite the league’s decision.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman

The fall tradition of watching the Buckeyes pour out of their team tunnel at Ohio Stadium will be interrupted this year. It's possible the Big Ten might play a football season in the spring.