Colleges around the country are already in full swing, but things look a little bit different than previous years. While it varies by institution, the general consensus is that fall sports are not being played. However, things are starting to look up for college football fanatics. The Power Five conferences — Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference — now have four of five possible participants slated to have a season after the Big Ten announced on Sept. 16 that they will indeed play. The odd conference out is the Pac-12 which, due to legal issues, has complications in some states. Nevertheless the return of football, specifically the Big Ten, is exciting news to the rebounding sports scene.
The Big Ten committee originally had announced on Aug. 11 that they would not play, stating “it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.” This was received with major backlash from figures within the Big Ten and outside of its bubble. Ohio State Head Coach, Ryan Day, publicly critiqued the committee with the main question being “Why can these other teams and players play and we can’t?” This came when the ACC, SEC and Big 12 were in the midst of returning to form. The Big Ten even faced legal persecution. Eight University of Nebraska players filed a lawsuit against the Big Ten with the goal of discrediting the committee’s original stance and to award damages to those affected. The lawsuit was dismissed after the Sept. 16 announcement.
College football saw pressure to return from President Donald Trump. “I’ve been calling for football to be back, including Big Ten,” Trump proclaimed at a rally in New Hampshire. “Big Ten, get with it. Open up your season, Big Ten.” This raises the question: What drove the decision to return? University of Michigan Athletic Director, Warde Manuel, estimated that his school would lose $100 million without fall sports. Both Democratic nominee Joe Biden and Trump have run ads in states with Big Ten schools calling for the league to play.
Regardless, the decision was made, and an intensive COVID-19 protocol has been put in place, which includes no fans at games. Before games can begin by Sept. 30, all players, coaches, trainers and “other individuals that are on the field for all practices and games” must receive daily antigen tests; the new routine will be completed and recorded before every practice and game. It has been estimated 150,000 tests will be needed to cover all 14 teams during the course of the season from Sept. 30 to Dec. 19.
It’s worth noting that the rapid-result antigen tests are a far less reliable option than the cotton-swab PCR tests. Antigen testing can sometimes bring up false positives, but the more concerning issue is the number of false negatives that can occur. According to Harvard University’s Dr. Robert H. Shmerling, the reported rate of false negatives is as high as 50%.
A color code will also be put into effect. The code focuses on two metrics: team positivity rate (positive tests divided by tests given) and population positivity rate (number of positive individuals divided by total population).
A green/green or green/orange ratio is business as usual. Orange/orange or orange/red means the team must “proceed with caution” and should alter day-to-day activities such as meetings and practice. Red/red will put a pause to all practice and/or competition for at least seven days as the situation is evaluated. In addition, athletes who test positive will then undergo heart testing that includes a cardiac MRI, an electrocardiogram and an echocardiogram. To return to play, an athlete must get clearance from a cardiologist.
The first week of play will start on Oct. 24 with the following matchups: Nebraska at Ohio State, Michigan at Minnesota, Penn State at Indiana, Iowa at Purdue, Illinois at Wisconsin, Rutgers at Michigan State, and Maryland at Northwestern.