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Nearly 30 years ago, James Carville hit a political grand slam when he blurted, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Times change. Today, “it’s the pandemic, stupid.” And the money.

The Big Ten made a stunning decision Thursday demonstrating health concerns while hoping to maintain a major share of football TV revenue by announcing a 10-game slate while dropping all non-conference athletics in the fall.

This was a blow for Illinois State, which was making extensive preparations for the one-hour trip to Memorial Stadium Sept. 4. It is devastating for Bowling Green, which was banking on $1.2 million from Ohio State and $1 million from Illinois.

These scheduling blowups, like so many contracts broken by “an act of God,” will undoubtedly be settled in the courts.

Pandemic rages on

The unexpected move by Big Ten leaders revolves around one great uncertainty: What happens when thousands of students return to campus?

Conference basketball tournaments, March Madness and spring sports were halted by cases just as the students went on break. They haven’t been back full-force since.

July has disappointed nationwide with multiple upsurges of COVID-19. It is still a raging pandemic. Now, what happens in August-September when students swarm these Midwest campuses?

If each Big Ten athletic program is willing to spend $250,000 in season-long tests (already at full steam), can others afford this expense?

Actual football talkWith so much at risk, Big Ten leaders see the need for a football cushion — open dates — as well as room to maneuver when the inevitable outbreaks happen. We’ve already seen Ohio State postpone voluntary workouts.

But for Illinois, there is a more basic concern. These changes reduce the likelihood of the UI posting its third plus-.500 season in 19 years. Illinois State, UConn and Bowling Green comprised an unusually weak nonconference slate. Those three plus Rutgers (with 21 straight Big Ten losses) presented a golden opportunity for a 4-0 start by Lovie Smith’s most experienced squad, thereby offering momentum ahead of Nebraska, which is 13-23 the last three years and having suffered extensive off-season departures.

All that changes now. At this point, the UI doesn’t know who the opening foe will be.

Adjusting as we go

If you’re an optimist, you can still be hopeful. Despite turbulent tuneups and infections impacting 27 teams Friday, the Nationals host the Yankees, and the Giants (without Buster Posey) take on the Dodgers a week from Thursday. Pro basketball and hockey will soon follow.

Meanwhile, almost forgotten on these warm summer days, other campus teams are shivering in the cold. Their funding (football) is at risk, thus requiring a whirlwind of adjustments. Some moves are “last resort,” like elimination of sports, as we’ve seen with baseball at Boise State, four sports at UConn, 11 sports chopped at Stanford, etc.

Some decisions are less severe, but meaningful: (1) no Ivy League sports until Jan. 1; (2) the Big Ten’s fall cutbacks; (3) trimming of spring trips by baseball-softball; (4) fewer overnight stays; (4) reduction in scholarships; (5) shaved salaries and non-replacement of staff departures.

And some decisions, perhaps in the planning stage, are unique, like: “Virtual competition” in men’s gymnastics, where only 16 college programs exist. An example: Take the Illini against Penn State, and allow each to “compete” on their home equipment with a remote judge watching elsewhere on TV.

It’s a new world for all of us.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news.gazette.com

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