When Iowa football parents started their Zoom calls last week after the Big Ten pulled the plug on a fall football season, Gary Koerner was skeptical it would mean anything.
And by the way, the father of Jack Koerner, a junior free safety for the Hawkeyes, remains skeptical. He doesn’t think the Big Ten will reverse course and come up with a plan for fall football.
He went into that first Zoom video conference meeting with a beer and a “What are we doing here? We don’t have a chance” attitude. Then, he heard mothers and fathers of seniors and fifth-year players speak.
“I went from being ... I’m not going to say ‘not caring,’ but maybe apathetic to ‘These guys are wrong,’” Koerner said Monday. “With each passing day, as we research and they don’t respond, I feel more emboldened that this has to change, this is just wrong.”
Since senior long snapper Austin Spiewak delivered a letter signed by 60 Hawkeye parents last week to the Big Ten offices in Rosemont, Ill., the Iowa parents haven’t heard a word from the league.
Since his interview on Big Ten Network last Tuesday, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren hasn’t spoken publicly. Big Ten presidents haven’t done much or any outreach on the decision to cancel fall football. Monday in an interview, Penn State athletics director Sandy Barbour said she doesn’t know if there was a vote among Big Ten presidents.
There is a pandemic. COVID-19 is the No. 1 topic on every college campus as students return to school. With a simple promise that there will be spring football — no specifics, except for Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm’s proposed plan — the Big Ten has left its football community hanging and that community is letting the league have it.
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Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan and Penn State have had parent groups contact the league. On Sunday, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, the league’s preseason offensive MVP, started an online petition asking the league to reconsider its decision. The petition had more than 250,000 signatures on Monday afternoon. Also Monday, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day backed Fields’ petition.
Sunday night, the Iowa football parents group had some 200 people on a Zoom call. They expected the same number Monday night.
The group is realistic. They know this likely won’t change the league’s decision. What they would like to see is a real plan for spring. If their sons have a goal, no matter how far away it might be, it might relieve some of the anxiety of putting their dreams on hold.
“There’s no plan, it’s feels like just kicking the can down the road,” said Dawn Beyer, whose son Shaun, a former Cedar Rapids Kennedy prep, is a senior tight end. “It would’ve been less devastating if they had said, ‘We can’t have the season and here are the reasons, but this is what we’re going to do as a conference, this is how we’ve all agreed to move forward.’ There’s still so much indecision right now, because the other conferences are playing.”
The Big Ten and Pac-12, aligned athletically and academically in so many ways, have canceled fall football. The Big 12, SEC and ACC are moving ahead with plans. Healthy, competitive 18- to 23-year-olds see that and wonder why they’re not allowed. The “fear of missing out” is a natural response.
“Dreams are ending,” Koerner said. “Whether it’s an NFL dream or finishing up your career, those dreams are getting smoked.”
Adding more emotional heat to the mix is the fact the Big Ten canceled the season six days after announcing a 10-game conference schedule. It invited everyone to the kegger and then turned on the lights and told everyone to go home, leaving football players feeling powerless and without a say. If the fear that athletes who test positive (Iowa football has had several COVID-19 cases) will have long-term heart issues drove the cancellation, which came at a point where fall camps had to open if the season were to begin Sept. 5, the Big Ten didn’t show that work, at least it didn’t at the parent level.
“Part of the healing process would be something solid for spring,” Beyer said. “It would allow the kids to believe they’re playing for something. It’s going to be more than a year since they’ve played.”
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Again, the Iowa parents are realistic about their influence, but that is not going to stop them from hope for a Hail Mary. Stuart Duncan, father of kicker Keith Duncan, was optimistic about a saliva test developed at Rutgers. The test costs $150 and is supervised via a Zoom video call. Results normally are available within 48 to 72 hours. Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour and Major League Soccer are using the test.
Another possibility is a liability waiver, but that is more complicated because many players are too young to enter a contract situation and these waivers vary from state to state.
“Our goal from the beginning has been information and transparency,” Duncan said. “My athlete is about to be a student. Presidents, what are your protocols? Make this make sense for us.”
Maybe this saliva test could cause the Big Ten to reconsider. The Big Ten has long been the adult in the room on student-athlete health issues. The adult move now is explaining the rationale. No, people still won’t agree, but at least they’ll know why and maybe when their next game is.
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