CHAMPAIGN — The Big Ten released its 2020 football schedule almost one week ago last Wednesday.
With it came the caveat that the games wouldn’t necessarily be played as scheduled. Or maybe not at all.
Six days later, that’s exactly where the Big Ten found itself when it announced Tuesday afternoon it was postponing the coming football season. It wasn’t just a football-only decision either. All fall sports, which at Illinois also includes volleyball, soccer and cross-country, were postponed as well.
“My heart hurts for our student-athletes and coaches,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said in a statement. “Over these last months, countless people, including our student-athletes, coaches, sports medicine professionals and so many other staff members have worked tirelessly to give our teams the best chance to compete this fall. Our people have done everything we have asked of them, which makes (Tuesday)’s decision so disappointing.”
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said multiple times last week when the 2020 football schedule was announced the conference was in a fluid situation when it came to actually implementing it. That fluidity played into Tuesday’s decision. Six days’ worth of new information on the COVID-19 pandemic, Warren said, was enough to push the conference to postpone all fall sports.
Warren noted the spike in number of coronavirus cases and more than 160,000 deaths in the United States as contributing factors to the decision. So was the additional information the past couple days of the increase in potential heart-related side effects for people afflicted by the novel coronavirus. An ESPN report Monday said five Big Ten athletes are among a group that have contracted myocarditis — inflammation of the heart muscle — following a positive COVID-19 case.
“I made it very clear also that this was a day-to-day situation,” Warren said during a Tuesday afternoon appearance on BTN. “It was going to be very important on a day-to-day basis that we would listen and follow and understand and appreciate and embrace the advice from our medical experts. That’s what we’re doing here. This is a holistic decision. There is too much uncertainty now for us to feel comfortable for us to go forward and have fall sports in the Big Ten.
“This is novel virus. It is spreading at alarming rates. … A lot of the questions we need to make sure we had answered now that we were getting closer to going to the next phase of practice and getting closer to actually have competition is that there are too many uncertainties to feel comfortable from a medical standpoint to move forward.”
Whitman praised Illinois’ efforts in its testing protocol and return-to-play procedures. The Illini athletes that returned to campus this summer were tested at least twice initially. That has since morphed into daily saliva testing for at least the Illini football team with training camp beginning last week. Whitman said Illinois’ next step would be to work with the Big Ten on future plans.
“The discussions that led to the decision to postpone fall sports were as frank and honest as they were difficult,” Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones said in a statement. “We recognize the intense disappointment this will bring to our student-athletes, coaches, athletic staff and fans. But as important as collegiate athletic competition is to the Big Ten university experience, the health and safety of our students, staff, faculty and campus community must be our priority.
“There are just too many unknowns with COVID-19 today, and the future continues to be just as unclear as it was months ago. We feel this decision offers the best way to maximize the safety of everyone involved. But that doesn’t make it any easier to hear for any of us who love sports.”
Other teams speak up
Warren did not delve into the specifics of the Big Ten’s vote to postpone the fall sports season Tuesday. Earlier reports, however, indicated it was not unanimous. Nebraska football coach Scott Frost said Monday with reports of the season’s impending cancellation swirling the Cornhuskers were open to the idea of playing even if the Big Ten didn’t. Frost and Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos doubled down on that idea Tuesday.
"We are very disappointed in the decision by the Big Ten Conference to postpone the fall football season, as we have been and continue to be ready to play," Moos and Frost said in a joint statement released Tuesday by Nebraska. "We will continue to consult with medical experts and evaluate the situation as it emerges. We hope it may be possible for our student-athletes to have the opportunity to compete."
Warren also declined to address Tuesday whether or not a Big Ten football team could play this fall with the conference season postponed. He did say, however, he understood the passion from which those statements came. Ohio State football coach Ryan Day also indicated Monday the Buckeyes wouldn’t dismiss the idea of playing independently.
“Our schools, we don’t always agree,” said Warren, who replaced Jim Delany as the league's commissioner on Jan. 1 once Delany retired after 30 years in charge of the league. “I can only talk about since I’ve been here. We don’t always agree. I think people understand — and I take that from a passionate standpoint — that we will be together in the Big Ten.
“This was a decision that was made on a collective basis. … I know many people may not agree with the decision we made (Tuesday), and I understand that. I understand the passion associated with it, but we have a responsibility as a conference to make sure we’re doing everything we possibly can to keep our student-athletes in an environment where, one, they can get a world-class education and earn a world-class degree, then also compete athletically in a safe and healthy environment.”
Pac-12 follows suit
The Big Ten’s decision to postpone its fall sports season was followed Tuesday by a similar move from the Pac-12, which announced all competition had been postponed through the end of the calendar year. That move would affect the college basketball season. And Illinois men's basketabll in particular, with Arizona scheduled to make the return trip to Champaign after the Illini played in Tuscon, Ariz., last season.
That leaves the Big 12, ACC and SEC fall sports seasons still in limbo.
“All of us have different issues — some are similar, some are different,” Warren said about the other Power Five conferences. “I have confidence they’ll do what’s in the best interest of their conference and their student-athletes at the appropriate time. Whenever that is. I feel very comfortable, (Tuesday), based upon the information regarding our 14 institutions and 11 states that we made the correct decision at this point in time based upon the information we have.”
The next step for the Big Ten is figuring out the fate of its fall sports. Conference wide that also includes field hockey and men’s soccer. One option is pushing them to the spring, with the conference saying decisions for winter and spring sports also continue to be evaluated.
“This is what we’ll be working on here over the next days and weeks and months,” Warren said. “This is where the work continues. We’ll continually gather information. We’ll rely on our medical experts internally in the Big Ten. We’ve been talking about various scenarios. We will start focusing and see what we can do from a spring standpoint.”