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GREENSTEIN: With Big Ten on verge of shutting down football, the sport needs a miracle

TEDDY GREENSTEIN
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
Penn State wide receiver KJ Hamler scores against Michigan last season in a Big Ten football game. There may not be a Big Ten football season in the fall of 2020.

C’mon, college football, do you have one more miracle in you?

One more Boise State Statue of Liberty, one more botched punt at the Big House, one more Chris Davis “Kick Six”?

We’ll even let you have you a fifth down.

College football makes the impossible possible week after week. But now it’s up against a relentless, unsentimental opponent. COVID-19 has infected nearly 5 million Americans and claimed more than 160,000 of our citizens.

It is so contagious, a single East Lansing, Mich., bar yielded an outbreak of more than 100 cases in June. And it can be so damaging the mother of Indiana football player Brady Feeney described a coronavirus battle that was “14 days of hell” and, she fears, brings the the potential for heart issues.

Big Ten on brink of canceling football: That Facebook post is part of why Big Ten football is on the brink of being canceled. It offered a reality check to the presidents, chancellors, athletic directors and coaches who recited stats on low hospitalization rates for 18-23 year-olds and say: We can do this.

But lately they’re asking themselves: WHAT ARE WE DOING?

Even when the Big Ten released its schedule last week, you could tell Commissioner Kevin Warren’s heart was not into it.

After he said the “health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes is at the top of our list,” I asked why, then, would the Big Ten attempt to play a sport that is the antithesis of social distancing?

Kevin Warren

“I would say talk to some of our student-athletes,” Warren replied. “The majority of them I’ve talked to have made it very clear: They want to participate in sports in the fall so long as it is done in a safe and healthy manner.”

Six of the Big Ten’s 14 programs paused workouts. Illinois carried on despite 18 positive tests. And this was before any team conducted a real practice and weeks before the return of tens of thousands of students to campus. On top of that, the Big Ten announced Saturday a league-wide pause on padded practices.

Baseball has had enough trouble, and that’s (mainly) a social-distancing sport with 28-30 players to a team. You can order them not to leave their hotel rooms, just as you can demand that NFL players lock into ether their home or the football complex. No games, no one gets paid.

You cannot do that with college football players.

Herculean task: I’ve believed Big Ten football was in grave danger since June 17, when a top source within the conference said getting healthy players on the field would be a “herculean task.”

Since then, cases have surged. Rutgers and Michigan State had outbreaks.

When I asked a Big Ten coach a few weeks ago what it would take, he replied: “Testing.”

If players, coaches and staff could wake up at 6:30 a.m. and know the result by 7, they could stay home, making the football complex a de facto bubble. But has this country made any substantive advances in testing since March? Did our leaders emphasize the need to wear masks?

Oh, yeah. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves did, saying: “I want to see college football. The best way for that to occur is for us all to realize that wearing a mask, as irritating as that can be (and) I promise I hate it more than anyone watching, is critical.”

He said this Aug. 4, which is like trying to teach the spread to a pro-style quarterback when your team is down 42-0 at half.

Penn State's Micah Parsons make a tackle against Rutgers in 2019. Parsons has opted out of the 2020 football season.

Following the MAC lead? With fall football sinking like the Titanic, the Big Ten will follow the Mid-American Conference and explore spring football. I don’t see it. Neither does a Big Ten source who texted simply: “If can’t play football in fall, no spring.”

You cannot — or at least should not — ask non-salaried players to suit up twice in one calendar year.

And who would play anyway?

Big names bailing, including Parsons: Several glossy Big Ten players deemed fall football unsafe, including Purdue speedster Rondale Moore, Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, Illinois running back Ra’von Bonner and quarterback Josh Jackson, one of six Maryland players to opt out.

There’s no way players aspiring to be a first-round or even second-day NFL draft picks would suit up. You think Ohio State should have to play Michigan without perhaps its seven best players?

Why? So America can be entertained on a bunch of Saturdays in February and March? So the schools can recoup maybe $30 million of the $70 million they stand to lose?

In need of a miracle: I’m skeptical but, hey, maybe there will be a vaccine by then so at least the players would be safe.

Give us a miracle, college football. We’re dyin’ here.