Column: New information made Big Ten willing to take risk


Did the Big Ten presidents make a wise, science-based, facts-supported decision? Or did they roll the dice when they ran a reverse we didn’t know they had in their playbook and voted unanimously Wednesday to start the conference’s football season in five weeks?

Did they cave to the pressure that came from other leagues and even high school teams playing football despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the pressure from the enormous hunger for college football and from the presssure to do something to avoid seeing their athletic departments’ budgets go over a financial cliff?

We shall see as the season unfolds, or maybe not until a year or two or a decade go by.

College presidents have never struck me as big risk takers. It would be surprising if the 14 Big Ten presidents’ combined total of tattoos is not in single digits. It might be zero.

It’s doubtful West Virginia University president E. Gordon Gee has a Harley in the garage and goes for shirtless late night rides on it through the countryside around Morgantown.

They do not appear to be, as a group, people who would regularly say, “Hit,” if the cards they hold already add up to 19.

This is not to say there aren’t risks involved in starting the Big Ten football season, which the conference presidents voted Aug. 11 to pause, reportedly by an 11-3 margin.

The coronavirus is new. We’re still learning about it. We are in a fluid situation, as suddenly talkative Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren described it on a Zoom conference televised by the Big Ten Network on Wednesday. And, as a country, we haven’t exactly gone on an all-out offensive against the virus so far.

Risk is a four-letter word but there are two other four letter words that could be bigger factors in the presidents’ decision to vote for the return of Big Ten football.

One is data. The other is hope.

In the 99 percent of their time they ordinarily devote to things other than football, the typical college president devours data. You don’t plan the annual budget or build a new performing arts building without studying the data.

Since the Big Ten pulled the plug on the football season Aug. 11, the data has changed. And that could have changed some minds.

During the Big Ten’s Zoom conference on Wednesday, Northwestern president Morton Schapiro said, “The medical advice I relied on when I voted five weeks ago was there was virtually no chance we could do it safely.

“Medical opinions changed. There have been a lot of advancements in understanding the pandemic. Like the great economist John Maynard Keynes said, ‘When the facts change, our minds change,’” he said.

Also, the data available to football programs is changing. It will soon greatly increase because rapid response testing, which allows athletes and people working in coaching and support roles to be tested daily for the coronavirus, will be available.

For many people across the Midwest, college football is one of the best things about living there.

That great desire for football has made a normally cautious small group of college administrators willing to take at least a bit of a gamble.

Now they and a lot of other people will hope for the best.

Jim Naveau

Staff Columnist

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