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Big Ten Drops Ball On Return To Play

Hillel Steinberg via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

  A good parent keeps an eye on what other parents do, but doesn’t let their decision-making impact on the choices they must make for their own kids. 

That’s what seems to have happened with the 14 Big Ten university presidents and chancellors who reversed course last week and approved a plan to get football on the field this fall.

These leadersbuckled under the weight of whining players, parents and coaches, as well as a president desperate to win re-election and authorized a slate of games for mid to late fall.


You’ll remember that a month ago, three of the so-called Power Five conferences, the Southeastern, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast, announced that they would clear the way for a return to play this fall in a variety of sports, most notably and importantly, football.

That decision came despite growing numbers of young people testing positive for COVID-19 on campuses as well as debates on the ethics of rushing testing for athletes while the rest of the respective student bodies had to wait for weeks for results.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten leaders saw the numbers on their mainly Midwestern campuses, like the ones at Wisconsin, showing that nearly 2,200 students had tested positive. Or the ones at Michigan State where students in 30 residences were required to quarantine.

Those presidents and their counterparts in the Pac-12, a league of mostly West Coast schools, opted out of fall play, figuring it would be safer to play in the winter and spring. 

Well, a clamor arose among Big Ten football players, their parents and coaches, wondering why they couldn’t play if the kids down the street in other leagues were playing.

They hounded the new Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren, making it seem as if he personally was keeping them from their God-given right to football.

Bring in Donald Trump,hungry to pick up votes in swing states in the Rust Belt, and you have a pressure that proved unavoidable for the Big Ten leaders. Theyreversed a previous vote of 11-3 to unanimously authorize a nine-game football schedule beginning the week before Halloween.

The decision of Maryland’s new president, Darryll Pines, to get back in the game is especially disappointing. Not only was this semester’s opening of classes delayed in College Park, but students in one of the dorms were encouraged to shelter in placewhen 23 people in that unit tested positive for the coronavirus. 

And yet, in the face of aNew York Times story, indicating that up to 15 percent of athletes with the virus also developed myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that can lead to cardiac arrest with exertion, Pines signed off on football. 

That ignores the memory of the death two years ago of Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair because of complications from heatstroke. While that tragedy could have happened anywhere, the fact that it happened at College Park and Pines, who was the engineering dean then, could step over it now, seems a bit callous.

If you believe that colleges and universities have an obligation to act as parentally as scholarly to students, you might think Big Ten presidents acted in a neglectful way in signing off on football this fall. You wouldn’t be wrong.

And that’s how I see it for this week. Thanks for listening and enjoy the games.


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Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.