Big Ten reverses course: Will play football, starting in October (UPDATED)

Games will begin Oct. 23-24; no schedule has been announced

Greg Schiano and his Rutgers team could be back on the field this fall, after all. (Rutgers)

It’s not clear if they are following the science, a request from the president or pleadings from players and fans, but the Big Ten Conference appears as if it will play football this fall after all, the conference announced Wednesday morning.

The league will start its 2020 season the weekend of Oct. 23-24. In theory, this will allow for both a conference title game and a potential spot in the national college football playoffs.

It is unclear when and where Rutgers will open the season. A schedule has yet to be announced. The school already has had two versions of its schedule. The second, which was released after the Big Ten announced it would only be playing conference game, had Rutgers opening its season Sept. 26 at Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio.

This much is clear, if Rutgers plays this season, there will be an extremely limited number of fans in the stands. And there will be severe health restrictions in place — including daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and an enhanced, data-driven approach when making decisions about practice/competition.

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

Daily testing will begin Sept. 30.

Rutgers, in a statement attributed to the school but no single individual, said safety conditions will be analyzed on a weekly basis — and said the school reverses the right to make any adjustments it feels are necessary.

“Assessments of the conditions at Rutgers, as well as those for each opponent, will be made regarding all upcoming games,” the statement said. “Individual universities may suspend the return to competition on a week-to-week basis if they or their scheduled opponents are experiencing significant negative changes among players and staff or within the broader university community.

“The Rutgers University Division of Intercollegiate Athletics will abide by those protocols and conditions and will rely on the input of the university’s medical professionals to assure the health and safety of everyone involved in a return to intercollegiate competition this semester.”

Dr. Jim Borchers, the head team physician at Ohio State and co-chair of the Return to Competition Task Force medical subcommittee, said everyone associated with the Big Ten should be very proud of the groundbreaking steps that are now being taken to better protect the health and safety of the student-athletes and surrounding communities.

“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,” he said.

Each institution will designate a “chief infection officer” who will oversee the collection and reporting of data for the Big Ten Conference. Team test positivity rate and population positivity rate thresholds will be used to determine recommendations for continuing practice and competition.

In addition, all COVID-19-positive student-athletes will have to undergo comprehensive cardiac testing to include labs and biomarkers, echocardiograms 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.

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.

Morton Schapiro, chair of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors and Northwestern University president, as well as chair of the Return to Competition Task Force Steering Committee, said health and safety were the top priority.

“From the onset of the pandemic, our highest priority has been the health and the safety of our students,” he said. “The new medical protocols and standards put into place by the Big Ten Return to Competition Task Force were pivotal in the decision to move forward with sports in the conference.”

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.

Of course, all of this is subject to change — and can be impacted by further COVID-19 outbreaks. Numerous games across the country have been canceled this month due to COVID-19 outbreaks on school teams.

Many felt the decision to reverse course was expected, since the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors met on Sunday night — a day after many major colleges returned to action.

The delay since then caused confusion and consternation. That was all cleared up Wednesday morning.