2 woman fans dressed in Husker corncob costumes view the game with sad looks on their faces
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Making Sense of a Football Season that Starts After Turkey Day

August 30, 2020

If the Big Ten comes out this week and says “We’re playing football this fall, and we’re starting the weekend after Thanksgiving,” it’ll be the dumbest good move the Big Ten has made all year long. 

Good for athletic departments and economies. (Jury’s still out on player safety; hard to know which league’s doctors are closer to the truth as teams preparing for the season are starting to get hit in chunks.) Dumb for the Big Ten.

Dumber than sitting on its hands throughout the summer months. 

Dumber than thumping its chest about a new schedule that was “meticulously crafted to optimize flexibility” (that’s not a direct quote, I’m paraphrasing, but that’s what the messaging came across as) and then six days later tossing the whole thing in the shredder. 

Dumber than letting program athletic directors go out on record saying they collectively didn’t start talking about the logistics of a spring season until late July, early August.

Dumber than putting commissioner Kevin Warren on that BTN special for him to not answer any questions, let the inferno rage for eight days, and then put out a “Get over it, what’s done is done” virtual letter

The Big Ten has done a lot of stupid things this spring and summer as it tried (maybe? Is that too strong a word?) to create an atmosphere suitable for fall football. But to come out after getting dunked on for what’s going on three weeks straight and say, “Yeah, nevermind, we’re going to play fall ball anyway, but we’re not going to play when the other conferences are playing…”


Who is making decisions for the Big Ten?

Here’s where we’re at:

On Thursday, eight Husker football players filed a lawsuit against the Big Ten in the US District Court of Lancaster County. They are seeking a reversal by the Big Ten on its decision to postpone the fall sports season and asking for clarity on how the conference made its decision. Shortly after, the Big Ten released a statement to ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg calling the suit meritless. 

Ultimately what it looks like to me is not a group of players going to court expecting to win against the Big Ten and it’s exorbitantly deep pockets, but rather a bluff called. They grabbed a megaphone and said “we want proof,” and this is the way to ensure they get what they want, which is receipts on the Big Ten’s vote and what went into the decision to postpone/cancel/whatever the season. If both parties have to appear in a courtroom, a discovery phase will get them what they want. That’s a win for the players. 

A day later (and I don’t believe these are related), reports emerged that a Thanksgiving start for the conference was “on the table.” 

According to Yahoo Sports, a group of five head coaches—Ohio State’s Ryan Day, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Penn State’s James Franklin, Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst, and Nebraska’s Scott Frost—were leading the change for a later fall start that would feature potentially eight games and end in enough time for NFL-eligible players in the league to play and still prepare for the NFL Draft. A January start to a winter/spring season—the other date that was previously thrown around—wouldn’t do that.

Makes sense from a coach’s and player’s perspective. 

Makes zero sense for the Big Ten to go along with.

First, and I want this on the record before anyone calls me a coronabro, I would like to see football played in the fall. I would even like to see Nebraska play football in the fall. If the players feel they’re safe and the university is actually doing what it says it’s doing, then I would like to see football. 

I’m just struggling to find the logic in anything that’s happening right now. 

The league is not standing on its own. It is not the only conference out of the 10 FBS leagues that decided not to play football in a pandemic. Non-football fall sports have been postponed at every level. Division II and III football has been postponed. The NAIA football national championship has been postponed. NCJAA football has been postponed. 

Is the skin really just that thin that the Big Ten couldn’t take getting yelled at anymore? 

Is the constitution of the leadership really that weak that it couldn’t keep the constituents in line? Angry parents were going to be angry because of the message, not the way it was delivered. Pascal’s wager would have supported just being honest upfront. But you didn’t even do that?

If it was not safe enough to play football on Nov. 21, when Nebraska would have hosted Michigan State under the previously reworked schedule, why is it now safe to play football on Nov. 28 (the first Saturday after Thanksgiving)?

When the University of Alabama is actively suppressing information about cases, and schools like North Carolina and Michigan State have brought back students only to immediately shutter and switch to online-only classes, that doesn’t seem like an environment that’s improving. (The “only 6%” thing running around social media is so dumb it doesn’t even deserve the light of day. If someone dies of cancer, but they also have high blood pressure, you don’t not count that as a cancer death.)

OK, here’s another potential theory. Let’s say it wasn’t entirely about safety and rather about testing functionality, that the Big Ten was worried the testing ability at the time of its decision wasn’t good enough to ensure appropriate precautions were being taken. Testing turnaround times weren’t quick enough, contact tracing in that window was too daunting a task as a result, or tests were too expensive or not in large enough supply. Fair worry. 

But why then would you not just delay the start of the season like the SEC and ACC? Like what coaches wanted? You would have given the medical community more time to think something up. In the time since the Big Ten has canceled, the NBA-backed SalivaDirect test has gained emergency use authorization from the FDA, and Abbott Labs’ $5, 15-minute antigen test has earned the same.

BUT, if testing capability is a big enough factor in the Big Ten’s thinking, Abbott’s test should be enough to make them say, “We can start earlier now,” right? Why wait until late November?

On Saturday, Nov. 28, the SEC will be in Week 10. Auburn will be playing at Alabama. LSU will be playing at Texas A&M. The first iteration of the Lane Kiffin-Mike Leach Piss Bowl will be happening in Mississippi. The ACC will be in Week 11. Clemson will play host to Pitt, North Carolina will play host to Notre Dame. You’ll have Oklahoma-West Virginia and Texas-Iowa State in the Big 12. 

Those conferences will be a couple weeks away from preparing for conference championship games and the College Football Playoff (which the Big Ten still wouldn’t get to participate in). Do we really think anyone is going to care about the first few weeks of the Big Ten season while the “Big Boys” are closing out theirs?

Optically for the Big Ten, a Thanksgiving start isn’t any better than a January start. It might actually look worse. 

I genuinely try to refrain from using this phrase, it’s often too problematic when applied but here it seems to fit—it would look like inmates running the asylum. Athletic directors and head coaches were removed from the initial decision-making processes for a reason. They were always going to be more inclined to make decisions factoring the financial implications of a season over the medical ones. Presidents and Chancellors weren’t, at least not to the same degree as a whole. 

Way too many issues make this look like Tennessee reversing course on Greg Schiano’s hiring after Twitter threw a temper tantrum. 

Maybe the Big Ten doesn’t care about its reputation at this point. 

Maybe the financial piece of this, when confronted with reality, was too hard to ignore. 

Maybe they overreacted to certain studies involving cardiac effects from COVID contraction. I’m not anywhere near qualified to say one way or the other.

Maybe the league was intentionally dodgey this whole time so it wouldn’t have to walk back medical justifications for not playing when it decided later it was going to play after all.

Who knows?

I’m certainly more optimistic now than I was a few weeks ago we’ll get to see some version of the 2020 Husker football team between now and next summer. So that’s a plus. Nebraska football has actually handled this… well? It wasn’t defiant initially in the manner it was painted as. It just asked to play, and then when it was told it couldn’t, it took those grievances behind closed doors to try and work on finding a path toward its intended goal. Scott Frost is on the league’s Return to Competition task force. I don’t think he should be tied to eight players in a lawsuit.

It just so happens that the league to which Nebraska belongs looks dumber and dumber by the day.

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