The Big Ten’s Rocky Road Back to Football

The day before its first kickoff of 2020, the Big Ten Conference was still unveiling rules for a football season that had been postponed, revived, truncated and compromised in efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday, the conference announced a “no contest” rule for games canceled if team personnel tested positive for the virus — which seemed inevitable because the schedule has no bye weeks and, thus, no wiggle room for last-minute changes. The intention is to play nine games in nine weeks to catch up to the three Power Five conferences that have already started.

But just over a month ago, no one thought the Big Ten — made up of 14 schools across the Midwest and Northeast — would be set to begin football on Friday night, with the University of Illinois at the University of Wisconsin, even as the home team’s state ranked fourth in the country in per capita cases over the past seven days, and first among the states with Big Ten programs.

“Having football while I can’t go to class — in a way, it’s nice that we’re having this one thing that’s unifying,” said Anne Isman, a sophomore at Wisconsin who is living in an apartment in Madison. “At the same time, the timing feels a little off.”

Fans and parties will be barred from all of the league’s stadiums, but the precautions have not fully reassured the mayors of certain Big Ten towns.

They know that what happens at the stadiums will be only one part of football’s return. Fear of groups breaking recommended social-distancing protocols led 12 mayors of areas surrounding 11 Big Ten schools to send a letter to the conference this week, citing concerns about what bringing football back means for college towns as fans congregate to watch games — the virus an omnipresent risk freely floating between face paint, beer bottles and potlucks.

“We know the history of football games within our cities,” the mayors wrote. “They generate a lot of activity, social gatherings and consumption of alcohol.”

The mayors, covering cities around all Big Ten schools except for Nebraska, Illinois and Rutgers, asked the conference to factor in case counts of surrounding communities when deciding whether to hold games. Big Ten officials have not responded to the mayors or to requests for comment.

“Madison is a huge football town — you feel the environment change, even now, with game day approaching,” said Luke Carmosino, a junior at Wisconsin who recovered from Covid-19 in September while in Madison.

Pre-pandemic, the whole city essentially shut down for games, Isman said, as bars, restaurants and fraternities overflowed with fans from far and wide. Both students expect slips in public health safety compliance during game days.

So long as positive coronavirus tests remain low among players, team staff members and officials, the Big Ten intends to push forward, although accomplishing its intended nine games in nine weeks seems unlikely: Other college conferences have had to postpone games because of outbreaks within teams, as has the N.F.L. Already in the Big Ten, Purdue Coach Jeff Brohm won’t be on the field this weekend after testing positive for the virus, and some Minnesota players will miss the opener because they had contracted the virus, Coach P.J. Fleck said.

“This is how the whole year is going to be, and there are no excuses,” Fleck said ahead of Saturday’s game against Michigan. “We’ve got to be able to find a way.”

The Big Ten was one of the first marquee conferences to postpone college football, initially pushing the season to the spring of 2021, only to reverse its decision in September amid sparring motivations of athletic goals, political arm-twisting and coronavirus containment.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields started the #WeWantToPlay petition, which drew more than 300,000 signatures in support of a fall schedule. Parents from 11 of the Big Ten schools sent letters to the conference’s commissioner, Kevin Warren, saying that letting their sons play “presents the best environment” for them.

And President Trump claimed credit for helping persuade the Big Ten to reverse its delay, prompting former Vice President Joe Biden to blame the president for the postponement in the first place.

Conference officials and schools said that the president’s opinion did not factor into their decision; rather, a dip in coronavirus cases, more widespread availability of testing and improved information on myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart linked to the virus, spawned the restart, they said.

“It feels like the Big Ten and N.C.A.A. catered to what the nation is feeling rather than what the students at institutions are feeling,” Carmosino said.

Some Big Ten colleges and their cities had to increase restrictions on students after bringing them back to campus, issuing punishments for crowded parties or moving classes online entirely. Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, issued an emergency stay-at-home order on Tuesday for the college, effective until Nov. 3. Athletics are exempt from these restrictions.

A month ago, Linda Vail, the health officer in Ingham County, which includes Michigan State University, would have recommended no football. But now that case counts in her county are trending downward, with a positive rate below 4 percent, she thinks that as long as fans continue following recommended guidelines, football’s return could have a calming effect.

“We’re all getting a bit fatigued with all the restrictions, but so long as you take precautions — even in the small gatherings — we can keep pushing case counts down,” she said. “We can have this semblance of normalcy.”

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