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Michael Arace: Is a Big Ten football season safe? We really don’t know

Michael Arace
marace@dispatch.com
Memorial Stadium's north stadium video board projects the news of the return of Big Ten NCAA college football, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, in Lincoln, Neb.

The Big Ten on Wednesday announced that it is safe for its student-athlete football teams to return to play in October, around the time when the second wave of coronavirus infections is expected, at the start of cold and flu season.

Pressure from a multitude of fans, an army of football players, a claque of parents and a few television networks had nothing to do with the decision. No. The call was made by the presidents and chancellors, based on testimony from a medical task force.

Interestingly, after just 36 days of study, the task force’s science fell into line with that of Ryan Day and Jim Harbaugh, Iowa and Nebraska and the president of the United States. And the Southeastern Conference.

The Big Ten will next decide whether it’s safe for nonrevenue fall sports — including cross country, soccer, women’s field hockey, women’s volleyball and men’s water polo — to return to action next month. This is an interesting discussion in light of other news that arose Wednesday: The NCAA unveiled preliminary plans for these fall sports to be played in the spring.

Does Big Ten task-force science also apply to field hockey? Or, does the Big Ten say, “The NCAA is wrong about football but right about field hockey?”

There are those who are devouring NFL games on television, who pine for their Buckeyes and who view the Big Ten’s reversal as a worthy blow to hypocrisy. They have a point. Big-time college football is a critical revenue source for big-time athletic programs, not to mention myriad satellite businesses. The economy of the game is a major issue, no doubt.

We all hope this works out. We all hope it’s safe. We don’t know if it is.

The Big Ten — specifically, its presidents and chancellors — canceled the season last month and changed its mind this week. That is the very definition of confusion. It went from erring on the side of prevention to uploading its football players onto the dark web. And therein is the greater hypocrisy, wrapped in the fantastical notion that athletes recruited to play minor-league pro sports are “student-athletes.”

There’s so much we don’t know about COVID-19 — for instance, its potential for long-term effects on the heart and the brain. We’ve seen studies that appear damning and studies that say it’s not as bad as was first thought. But we don’t know. Thus, I am dubious about the Big Ten task force finding comfort and solace in a span of 36 days. If it can do that, it can surely have a vaccine tested and ready by Tuesday.

I got this email from a retired Youngstown State professor and frequent emailer:

“I wonder if a more important issue isn’t the rush to sports in schools and campuses as the rush to return children and college students to hermetically sealed disease cauldrons. It is forbidden (if not impossible) to open windows on most campus buildings, the ventilation systems are terrible, if not transmitters of germs themselves, and even before COVID they were sources of flu, colds and other stuff. At least most sports are outside. Zip Code data for this area (Youngstown) shows that the areas with the highest COVID cases are areas with concentrations of nursing homes and prisons. So, in our infinite wisdom we are taking young people from low-density, ventilated environments and moving them to high-density, sealed environments. Is this a science experiment?”

Is this professor totally right or totally wrong? Neither, probably. Maybe not. Like most of us, he is wondering: Is this a science experiment?

Do you have a preexisting condition? I do.

Penn State has reported more than 1,100 positive cases since it opened. Not good. The University of Iowa has reported more than 1,600 cases. Not good. Then there is the University of Illinois, which has one of the most aggressive and expensive testing programs in the nation. It has, after some problems with house parties and bar hopping (shocking!), drastically cut its case count. Good.

A physician who trained at a children’s hospital in Pittsburgh emailed me to say that, when it comes to K-12 education and activities, the benefits of participation vastly outweigh the dangers of COVID-19 in children. He cited studies that looked at both sides of the issue and added personal observations. Is this doctor totally right? Totally wrong? Neither.

Pediatric studies, like efforts to contain the virus, are ongoing. It really is one big science experiment. And now the Big Ten has jumped in the petri dish, with the task force. I hope they got it right. I really do.

marace@dispatch.com