Photo by Eric Francis
Nebraska Football

Five Thoughts on the Big Ten's Decision to Postpone Fall Sports

August 11, 2020

After a morning meeting of university presidents, the Big Ten announced Tuesday afternoon that it would be postponing all fall sports—that includes football—with the hopes of holding a season in the spring. 

A few thoughts on that decision.

1. The viability of a spring season

The Big Ten says it wants to play in the spring. But, during an interview on BTN Tuesday afternoon to talk about the league’s decision, commissioner Kevin Warren completely side-stepped a direct question about what he’d need to see to feel comfortable about playing a spring season. (Warren didn’t answer much during that interview; why have it?)

There’s no guarantee things will be better in the spring than they are now. There’s no guarantee there will be a vaccine in the spring. A fall season might likely have featured stadiums with empty seating. A canceled fall season means a spring season would have to feature stadiums with fans in attendance. From a money standpoint, that seems like the only way to make things work.

Athletic departments are going to be crushed by this—Husker head coach Scott Frost said Monday NU would face anywhere from $80 to $120 million in losses. In order to try and recoup that in the spring, universities would have to be able to sell tickets to games. Will we be at a place then where they can?

If Warren doesn’t know now what he’s looking for... woof.

A spring season just doesn’t seem likely in major college football.

2. And that makes this feel like a trap

Nebraska expressed defiance. 

“We’re committed to playing football at the University of Nebraska,” Frost said Monday. “We’re a proud member of the Big Ten. I think it’s the best conference in the country. We want to play a Big Ten schedule. I think our university is committed to playing football regardless of what anyone else does.

“We want to play no matter who it is or where it is. We’ll see how those chips fall. We certainly hope it’s in the Big Ten. If it isn’t, I think we’re prepared to look for other options.”

Asked directly about any potential Nebraska defection, Warren was again evasive.

But there wasn’t really anything Warren needed to say because there doesn’t really feel like anything Nebraska can do.

Let’s throw out hypotheticals.

Behind Door No. 1, Nebraska decides to go rogue and schedules its own mini-season for this fall. It cobbles together an eight-game schedule complete with teams in a 300-500 mile radius because it doesn’t believe a spring season is a realistic option (doesn’t feel like it). Who gets the TV rights to those games? Does Nebraska get any revenue from that? Does Nebraska, if it’s in open defiance of the Big Ten’s stated plan, see it’s membership status in the Big Ten get thrown into jeopardy? It might. What happens to player eligibility? Where else can Nebraska get $50 million a year? The SEC ain’t busting down the door anytime soon.

If Nebraska plays a season in the fall and the Big Ten decides it’s going to hold a mini-season from something like March through May, does Nebraska participate in that? The smart move would be to sit on the sidelines. What does that do to your league status then if they’re playing and you’re not?

If Nebraska abides by the Big Ten’s mandate and begrudgingly sits on its hands for the fall, only to arrive at the spring and realize football still isn’t a viable option in Warren’s mind, what happens then? That’s a Door No. 2 Nebraska would much sooner burn than walk through.

This has been a strained relationship from the outset, Nebraska football and the Big Ten. The Huskers haven’t ever truly found their identity in the conference and the league shortly after NU’s arrival switched up on the schedules Nebraska was initially promised. What becomes of the relationship now that the Big Ten is effectively holding schools like Nebraska, Ohio State, and Michigan—schools that all want to play football—hostage?

If the Huskers walk out a door now, does it close and lock behind them? They left the Big 12 looking for stability, are they willing to give that up for 10 random games in the fall? 

3. Safety is not the priority

Don’t call it rain. . . 

You tell me the health and well-being of student-athletes in the conference is the main priority. You tell me the players’ input is valued. Six days ago (and well before that) the Big Ten thumped its chest about the medical procedures it had developed and put into place for a return to football activities that would provide the best possible chance to play a season. 

Now, the science that the Big Ten is using appears to directly contradict the science the ACC and SEC are using. The optics of one league saying, “We can’t,” while another league says, “We can try,” is an absolute nightmare scenario. The Pac-12 came to the same conclusion as the Big Ten, but revealed the medical findings for why it came to that conclusion. The Big Ten provided no such transparency, another misstep.

Being scared by new findings regarding heart conditions brought on by contracting the virus is a good thing. It would be a problem if football’s power brokers weren’t spooked by myocarditis. But the potential for contracting the virus doesn’t suddenly evaporate because football isn’t happening?

This comes down to risk avoidance, clear as day. As we saw Monday, a large number of players in the Big Ten wanted to play a football season in the fall and felt they were safe enough to do so. Not in the spring. Because they’re the children in the room, they’ll now be told to strap up the chinstrap for potentially two full seasons of Big Ten football in something like eight months? How is that in the best interest of student-athlete health? 

4. You feel for the kids

Nebraska’s fall sport athletes have been on campus since June 1 working out and preparing for a season. Getting to play was the carrot at the end of the stick dangled in front of them, and they were told “follow all these rules, make these sacrifices, and we’ll do what we can on our end to find a way to make it work.”

Those players didn’t even get a chance to try.

Nebraska was on the football field this morning practicing. The players have been working in weight rooms, film rooms and on practice fields for the opportunity to play. Coaches at NU have spent months on end preparing for seasons. All of their hard work turned to ash in a matter of days. 

You hope the Big Ten doesn’t lose star athletes to other conferences. If the Big 12 decides to move forward with a season, whether it’s a delayed start or not, you hope Iowa doesn’t lose players to Iowa State by transfer. You hope Nebraska doesn’t lose players to Kansas State. What a black mark on the league moving forward that would be. 

But could you honestly blame the kids if there was football elsewhere and they could play? On Aug. 5 the Big Ten announced a modified schedule, telling kids “this is what you’re working toward.” At Nebraska, they’ve done everything right. And they won’t be given a chance. What a sad day.

5. What now becomes of campus life

No football, but the student portion of the “student-athlete” title must go on. No volleyball, but still classes. No soccer, but still tutoring sessions. Student-athletes will still have to go to classes with a general student population. Will they still have access to testing? The student population never was going to have the same kind of medical procedures in place to safeguard their health the way student-athletes were going to have. 

Ohio State has already gone on record saying student-athletes would stay on scholarship and still have access to facilities. Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez said the football team might still practice. 

Nebraska said yesterday it won’t be doing the same. “If it's too dangerous to play football, it's too dangerous to do any of those (other) things,” Frost said. Is he wrong?

But then what happens on campuses? What about the mental health and well-being of student-athletes now without their escape route? Can Nebraska afford to keep testing? Can Nebraska afford to keep providing the same kind of healthcare it has been? It’s likely Nebraska’s football players were safer before than they are today.

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