Rob Oller | Big Ten needs to be more transparent

Rob Oller
Ohio State football fans listen during a rally organized by parents of Buckeyes players outside the rotunda of Ohio Stadium.

I often issue a pre-apology the week before the first Ohio State football game. But without knowing when a 2020 season will begin, if it does at all, now will have to do.

Here goes: I will annoy you. I will offend you. I will write things I think are funny but aren’t. I will occasionally be wrong. Sorry in advance.

Wagons, ho.

So many questions. So few answers. Such as … was there an actual vote of the Big Ten presidents to cancel fall sports? What constitutes a consensus decision among a group of 14? Clearly, 12-2 qualifies. What about 9-5? Conference commissioner Kevin Warren described the vote as “overwhelmingly” in favor of shutting things down, but specific numbers have not been released, so his description means little.

Best guess? Someone — Warren? — was tasked with “reading the room” and finalizing the decision without actually holding a person-by-person vote. That’s not all that unusual. Voting anonymity protects the individual against attack. But given the seriousness of a pandemic, secrecy should not outweigh the disclosure of facts and findings. It would be nice if the Big Ten would come clean on the details.

The buzzword of the day among Buckeye Nation and the parents of OSU players is “transparency.” Everyone (except Warren and the presidents, apparently) wants more revelation of exactly how the decision was reached. Without that, we are left with a sliding scale of speculation that covers everything from conspiracy theories — “they canceled the season in hopes of impacting the November election” … huh? — to responsible connect-the-dots reasoning.

Mostly the thought processing breaks into three parts.

What we know. What we think we know. What we don’t know at all.

What we know, Part I: The Big Ten is taking some broadside hits, but the conference has not been silent. Warren has said and written that keeping people safe during the coronavirus pandemic was the No. 1 consideration in canceling the season. (Warren continues to insist the season has been postponed and not canceled. He may end up being right, if Big Ten football resumes in November, but if it comes back on or after Dec. 21, autumn becomes winter and a fall season disappears.)

It is hard to criticize any decision made for health reasons, especially when dealing with highly contagious and dangerous COVID-19, but “health reasons” also covers a lot of territory. Reasonable minds can find nuance in medical data.

What we know, Part II: The Big Ten coaches and athletic directors are discussing several restart scenarios, including a winter season that would run from early January through late February or early March and, more urgently, a late-fall season that would begin the week of Thanksgiving. The virus will still be here when the turkey gets carved, so why wait? Begin the season sooner, when it is more clear what COVID-19 cases looks like.

What we think we know: Actually, I already know the answer to this one, but refer back to my opening apology. Anyway, if the Big Ten doesn’t begin play until late November, it becomes irrelevant in the more immediate discussion of college football in 2020. (Caveat: that is, if the Southeastern, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast conferences all manage to play a full fall season, whatever that looks like.)

Put another way, the Big Ten comes off looking like an exhibition season while the other three Power Five conferences play for a national championship conducted via the College Football Playoff. Will that championship be legit? Yes, for the school that wins it. And for the TV networks that already are declaring championship legitimacy. CBS broadcast a college football preview on Saturday that featured talking heads touting “there will be no asterisk on this season.”

CBS analyst Rick Neuheisel went coach-speak, saying the football mantra of “next man up” also applies to teams. Sorry, Big Ten and Pac-12, you chose to sit this one out. That’s on you.

What we don’t know at all: Is a plan taking shape to begin the Big Ten season in early October? And would it gain traction with the presidents? Since we don’t know how the presidents voted, or each individual’s thought process, it is impossible to know how agreeable they would be to reversing course.

Are presidents from “non-football” schools such as Northwestern and Indiana enjoying their positions of power, of holding sway over the football factories of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State? And if safety is truly the No. 1 concern, reinstituting a fall season makes little sense. But the same goes for playing 16-plus games over spring 2020 and fall 2021 seasons.

Unless … what are Big Ten lawyers saying as the threat of lawsuits arise? (Nebraska players already have filed one.) Are the university coffers hemorrhaging as angry alumni pull their donations? What is really going on in those presidential Zoom meetings?

We don’t know. But we should.