Yes, Big Ten football is back and on track for an Oct. 23-24 return. The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t going anywhere and so you need to remember the colors and the numbers.
The Big Ten developed a color-coded system to guide decisions on whether schools need to stop practices or games.
“Green” means go. Your team has tested at less than a 2 percent positivity rate. An “orange” means 2 to 5 percent COVID-19 positivity and your team “must proceed with caution.” Teams in the “red” range, greater than 5 percent, must stop practice and competition for at least seven days until the metrics improve.
Beyond the team, the football community — coaches, support staff, employees who are around the team — also will be tested on an everyday basis. Greater than 7.5 percent for the team’s community will shut things down. This is the “football community” only, not the University of Iowa, Iowa City population or other sports.
“The 5 percent rolling average every seven days is about what percentage tested positive during those seven days,” Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said during a Zoom video conference call Thursday. “Now, when someone tests positive they go into a protocol that lasts longer than seven days, so you accumulate the number of people who are in that potential positive count. That, at any time, has to be below 7.5 percent, if that makes any sense.”
It does, but, yes, it takes some explaining. This is all going to take some explaining. The Big Ten is back, but it faces the same perils, delays and shutdowns that have affected the other conferences. Nothing is guaranteed and everyone knows that going in.
Barta and Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz talked Thursday about the Big Ten’s decision to return to play and other items related to returning to the field in the safest manner possible.
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• The football schedule isn’t finished or not ready to be announced yet. Iowa knows it will play the six teams in the Big Ten West and then two crossovers. Purdue athletics director Mike Bobinsky said Thursday the Big Ten will build this schedule off the one it had before the pandemic, eliminating one crossover game. The Hawkeyes likely will end up with Penn State and Michigan State.
“The final schedule isn’t done yet,” Barta said. “We had another meeting this morning. They will be done very, very soon ... working directly with our TV partners. Fox, BTN and ESPN have all been great in trying to get this schedule together.”
The schedule should be ready within days.
As an aside to this question, Barta said the UI did begin winterizing Kinnick Stadium. That has halted, obviously. Iowa is scheduled to have four home games this fall.
• Since the Big Ten announced a return, one big question has been about “opt outs,” players who don’t want to expose themselves to COVID-19 and choose to not to play. The Big Ten has been hit with a few headliners in opt outs, including Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore.
Iowa hasn’t had any players opt out publicly, but it still could happen.
“We have a very small number who have expressed concerns, but no final announcements at this point,” Ferentz said. “If we do get verification, we’ll announce it when it’s appropriate.”
• The return of Big Ten football doesn’t mean the four sports that Iowa cut in response to the budget shortfall will be reinstated. Barta has said “never say never,” but it looks like men’s and women’s swimming, men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics have been permanently cut from the UI, taking the school from 24 sports to 20.
“The short answer is no,” Barta said. “I shared with our staff yesterday that the position eliminations, the furloughs, the salary reductions and including the four sports not continuing at Iowa are all still in place. Those decisions won’t change because the financial crisis is certainly still in play and still is going to be very, very significant.”
Yes, there will be more TV money, but Barta said it will be a reduced amount. Also, a season with no fans in the stands — something the Big Ten firmly stated during Wednesday’s announcement — means no ticket revenue, no seat donations revenue. The cost of the extra COVID-19 testing also will be a factor. Barta said the school might still need to borrow as much as $60 to $75 million for operations.
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• Each school needs to designate a “Chief Infection Officer.” This person will oversee the collection and reporting of data for the Big Ten. Team test positivity rate and (football community) population positivity rate thresholds are what will be used to determine recommendations for continuing practice and competition.
Iowa has yet to name a chief infection officer.
• Ferentz has concerns about how much time players will have to get ready to “endure and deliver” contact. This week, Ferentz spoke to an NFL colleague who reminded him of the rash of soft-tissue injuries the NFL went through during the 2011 lockout.
But he also realizes everyone is in the same boat. The Big Ten can now say it’s at least in the boat, and that’s the energy Ferentz took to his team after Wednesday’s announcement.
“It’s a whole different vibe for everybody,” Ferentz said. “We all like clarity. We all appreciate knowing what the target is. Not that we don’t worry about it, not that we don’t realize now we’re under a tight deadline right now, but it’s good to know where you’re going, have directions and have something to aim at. The players have a whole different mindset right now and we’re banking on that to help us be more vigilant in our personal lives when we leave the building.”
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