CHAMPAIGN — The Big Ten’s announcement of a 2020 football season actually happening this fall came with a laundry list of COVID-19 protocols and procedures necessary to get teams back on the field and ready for a season set to begin Oct. 23-24.
Protocols exist to keep them on the field, too. Test positivity rate for athletes has to remain at specific — i.e. low — levels for the continuation of practice and competition. A similar positivity rate will be calculated for the entire football population that includes coaches and staff.
Those rates will be used in conjunction to determine how teams proceed throughout the season. Both are low? Practice and compete as usual. Higher rates lead toward an alteration of practices and meeting schedules as a cautionary stopgap and, if that’s not successful, to a full seven-day shutdown until testing metrics improve.
That’s the difference between this attempt at a fall season and the short-lived effort the Big Ten made in August when it announced a revised 10-game schedule and six days later pulled the plug on it because of lingering pandemic concerns.
“We are in a position now to really adopt a true data-driven approach to those decisions,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said Wednesday afternoon. “We’re going to take the subjectivity out of determining whether we’re going to practice or whether we’re going to play. There will be a dashboard that’s shared across he conference so there’s great transparency in terms of where each program stands relative to its positivity rates, both in terms of total numbers of tests and in the realm of its population. I think that’s an important piece.”
Those testing metrics are important. Particularly when this new version of a Big Ten football season is cramming eight regular season games into an eight-week schedule.
The Big Ten left itself some flexibility when it announced a 10-game schedule in early August. Open weeks for all teams were strategically placed should a game — or multiple games — face postponement because of the pandemic.
The current schedule has no such flexibility.
“I think as we go into it we know we don’t have a lot of wiggle room on the schedule,” Whitman said. “We might be in a position where we see more cancellations instead of reschedules if the health of any given team at any given moment doesn’t allow us to play.”
The idea of postponements — or now, in the Big Ten’s case, likely cancellations — is simply a reality of the ongoing pandemic and has already been reflected in teams from other conferences postponing multiple games. Whitman didn’t linger on those possibilities on Wednesday — except for the fact he finally had some good news to share.
“We have had, I think as everyone knows, a number of hard days here over the last six months,” he said. “This is not one of them. This is a day we can smile and feel good about the decision we’ve made and the excitement that I hope we’ve created amongst our fans across not just this institution but all 14 member institutions here in the Big Ten and certainly for our student-athletes.”
The good news of a Big Ten football season on the horizon in late October doesn’t solve all of the conference’s problems. Other Big Ten universities, like Iowa and Minnesota, have already announced cuts to their total number of programs, with non-revenue sports on the chopping block. Illinois has avoided making a similar move — and made that a last ditch lever to pull if necessary — but the financial challenges created by the pandemic weren’t all swept away by Wednesday’s news of a Big Ten football season.
“I think the reality is that certainly (Wednesday’s) announcement will help us financially,” Whitman said. “It makes our picture a little better than when we woke up (Wednesday) morning, but it’s not going to be a silver bullet either. We’re going to continue to work through the challenges presented by nine football games instead of 12 and by not having public ticket sales. Those are all things that obviously have pretty dramatic implications for our bottom lines.”
Whitman was in agreement with the Big Ten mandate that fans would not be allowed in the stands in 2020 outside of family of athletes, coaches and staff. Illinois’ original plan was to allow for ticket sales to reach 20 percent capacity of Memorial Stadium, which has a capacity of 60,670.
“I think it’s a wise decision,” Whitman said. “It’s one that will allow us to maintain not only the health and safety of our participants but also of our community. I think one of the concerns was the influx of people from ‘outside’ the local area. That’s been shown to be one of the risk factors in seeing spikes of the virus. That was a decision made at that conference level, and we’re prepared to follow those guidelines.”