Iowa Football

From 'Big When' to kick the tires and light the fires, Big Ten football returns to action

The Big Ten will kick off on Oct. 24 with a long list of protocols to deal with COVID-19

Iowa Hawkeyes running back Mekhi Sargent (10) and fullback Brady Ross (36) take the field to warm up for their game agai
Iowa Hawkeyes running back Mekhi Sargent (10) and fullback Brady Ross (36) take the field to warm up for their game against Miami (Oh) Redhawks at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

In just over a month, the Big Ten Conference went from “no football” and “we’re not revisiting no football” amid the COVID-19 pandemic to turning the stadium lights on Wednesday morning for the 2020 fall season.

The Big Ten will resume football with games beginning Oct. 24. The league doesn’t have a schedule to unveil yet, but during a Zoom video conference call Wednesday, University of Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez said there will be eight games with a ninth coming at the end of the season with a seeded schedule of games between the Big Ten West and East Divisions.

The schedule will have two crossover games between East-West teams and will be determined later this week.

Can you go to a game? No.

The Big Ten has decided no public sale of tickets, but is looking into how to accommodate players’ families for home and away games.

Since the Big Ten postponed the season Aug. 11, testing for the coronavirus has progressed. Rapid saliva testing is now available. Also, Big Ten officials ramped up their understanding of myocarditis and how it and the virus affect athletes.

Big Ten executives who spoke during Wednesday morning’s Zoom call were very clear on why the league decided to reinstate the season.

“There’s a very strong view among the medical experts, a unanimous view, that they could do it safely,” said Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University and a member of the league’s Return to Competition task force. “ ... The feeling was that if we could play football safely in the Big Ten and meet the cost of daily testing and we were able to do that, I don’t see any reason why you don’t want to go forward on it, which is why I did, in fact, vote to go forward. I did grapple with that, thinking that part of the campus is closed maybe you shouldn’t play football until the campus is opened for the winter quarter at Northwestern, the first weekend in January.

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“At the end of the day, I found the arguments that we if we do it safely, we can play football.”

As the pressure for “return to play” built with the beginning of the college football season, the Council of Presidents and Chancellors did finally revisit football this fall during a flurry of activity last weekend.

The COP/C adopted significant medical protocols including daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and an enhanced data-driven approach when making decisions about practice/competition.

• There is no bye week, it’s eight games in eight weeks. There is a 21-day suspension of play for players testing positive and the shutdown threshold is 5 percent positivity rate on a team.

The safety stakes are high.

“We can’t emphasize enough that what we’re putting forward requires prevention,” said Dr. Jim Borchers, head physician for Ohio State and co-chair of the Return to Competition task force medical subcommittee. “It requires accountability from everyone involved.”

• The Big Ten will require student-athletes, coaches, trainers and other individuals who are on the field for all practices and games to undergo daily antigen testing. Test results must be completed and recorded before each practice or game. Student-athletes who test positive for the coronavirus through point of contact (POC) daily testing would require a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to confirm the result of the POC test.

“The data we are going to collect from testing and the cardiac registry will provide major contributions for all 14 Big Ten institutions as they study COVID-19 and attempt to mitigate the spread of the disease among wider communities,” Borchers said.

• Each institution will designate a Chief Infection Officer (CInO) who will oversee the collection and reporting of data for the Big Ten. Team test positivity rate and population positivity rate thresholds will be used to determine recommendations for continuing practice and competition.

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• This next part is important. The league’s return does come with “killswitch” numbers that could shutdown entire teams. It’s important to note here that the league is talking “football community” here and not the city the school is situated in.

From the Big Ten’s release: The Big Ten Conference will use data provided by each Chief Infection Officer to make decisions about the continuation of practice and competition, as determined by team positivity rate and population positivity rate, based on a seven-day rolling average:

Team positivity rate (number of positive tests divided by total number of tests administered):

Green 0-2 percent

Orange 2-5 percent

Red >5 percent

Population positivity rate (number of positive individuals divided by total population at risk):

Green 0-3.5 percent

Orange 3.5-7.5 percent

Red >7.5 percent

Decisions to alter or halt practice and competition will be based on the following scenarios:

Green/Green and Green/Orange: Team continues with normal practice and competition.

Orange/Orange and Orange/Red: Team must proceed with caution and enhance COVID-19 prevention (alter practice and meeting schedule, consider viability of continuing with scheduled competition).

Red/Red: Team must stop regular practice and competition for a minimum of seven days and reassess metrics until improved.

• All COVID-19 positive student-athletes will have to undergo comprehensive cardiac testing to include labs and biomarkers, ECG, Echocardiogram and a Cardiac MRI. Following cardiac evaluation, student-athletes must receive clearance from a cardiologist designated by the university for the primary purpose of cardiac clearance for COVID-19 positive student-athletes.

The earliest a student-athlete can return to game competition is 21 days following a COVID-19 positive diagnosis.

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• In addition to the medical protocols approved, the 14 Big Ten institutions will establish a cardiac registry in an effort to examine the effects on COVID-19 positive student-athletes. The registry and associated data will attempt to answer many of the unknowns regarding the cardiac manifestations in COVID-19 positive elite athletes.

The daily testing will begin by September 30, 2020.

Football was the centerpiece of Wednesday’s discussion, but the return of fall and winter sports also was discussed.

Eventually all Big Ten sports will require testing protocols before they can resume competition. Updates regarding fall sports other than football, as well as winter sports that begin in the fall including men’s and women’s basketball, men’s ice hockey, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, and wrestling, will be announced shortly, the league said.

The initial vote to postpone the season was 11-3, with Iowa, Ohio State and Nebraska voting to play. On Wednesday morning, the Big Ten said the vote to return was unanimous.

So, let’s take a second to talk about Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren, who’s become the go-to scapegoat during this. When Warren announced the decision to postpone, there was no follow-up, no stated reason just the term “uncertainty.” The only follow-up came eight days after the announcement and it was an open letter to the Big Ten community stating the league wouldn’t revisit its decision.

League athletics directors and football coaches were left with very little information to explain the decision to their publics. Then, of course, athletics directors were left with the painful task of cutting $100 million in revenue out of their budgets. Minnesota has cut men’s track and field, men’s gymnastics and men’s tennis.

At Iowa, this played out with the cutting of four sports (men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics) and a budget that was $120 million in 2020 shrunk to $23 million for 2021.

It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out for Warren, who’s in his first year as commissioner and faced a once-in-a-lifetime situation with the league’s response to COVID-19.

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“From a communications standpoint, what I tried to do personally and we tried to do collectively is to make sure that when we had things to communicate that we did communicate,” Warren said. “Again, one of the easy things to do is to be able to turn around and look back and say what was poor and what was good. Again, like I said a couple of minutes ago, we’re in an environment now where, I know me personally, I wake up every day and try to be as positive as I can, to do the best as I possibly can for as many people as I can touch.”

Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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