Less than five weeks after pushing fall sports to the spring for player safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Big Ten Conference changed course Wednesday announcing football's return the weekend of October 23-24. All 14 teams will play eight regular-season games in eight consecutive weeks.
A conference championship game would take place Dec. 19. The conference's Council of Presidents and Chancellors voted unanimously to restart athletics, with specifics on other sports coming soon. The council last month voted 11-3 to postpone sports, with Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska voting against. The emergence of daily, rapid-response COVID-19 testing helped trigger a re-vote, according to Ohio State University President Kristina Johnson.
"The rapid testing of a few months ago was very accurate with regard to false negatives but not very accurate with regard to false positives," Johnson noted. "We're looking at tests now that are 98-99 percent accurate. Now you may say well, there's still 1 or 2 percent. But it's 1 or 2 percent of. There are criteria and thresholds of five percent. So in a one-day test, you can't be above five percent if you want to play. So what's 1 percent of 5 percent - if you look at it in a math approach, it's zero. I do believe we will have clean playing fields with no athletes on those fields that have COVID. If someone does test positive, there is a protocol within our protocols about when they can return, when they need to get tested for myocarditis. If an athlete who gets COVID then does express myocarditis, then they're out for season."
The Big Ten will begin daily antigen testing of all its fall sport athletes, coaches and staff Sept. 30. Each institution will designate a Chief Infection Officer to oversee the collection and reporting of data for the conference. Team positivity rates and population positivity rate thresholds will be used to determine whether teams must halt practices or games. The earliest an athlete will be able to return to game competition would be 21 days after a COVID-19 positive diagnosis, following a cardiac evaluation and clearance from a cardiologist designated by the university. Ohio State football coach Ryan Day appreciates that his team has a chance to play.
"What I talked to the team about over the last couple weeks is that you're going to learn a lot of life lessons through this," Day said. "Life is about ups and downs. When things go well, go enjoy it and go get all you can get. Enjoy it, go get it all. But when things aren't going very well, you just hang on. You just manage through it. You hang on, and you trust the people that you're around. Eventually it's going to turn and it's going to start going back up. That's all we were doing, just hanging on. Now it's turning. We're not there yet. We're just starting to move back up, but there's life and this thing is starting to turn. So, I hope they can use that as a life lesson moving forward."
Johnson and OSU Athletics Director Gene Smith say the football games will not have spectators but agreed the conference could amend that as the season progresses if it's deemed safe to do so. Smith said it's too soon to talk about the budgetary implications for OSU. Updates on the conference's other fall and winter sports are expected in the coming days.