JENSEN: Did the Big Ten cave to public pressure, or listen to the evidence?

The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren

It’s sure easy to lose the thread on how the Big Ten is going about its business these days.

Traditionally a well-oiled (moneymaking) machine, the Big Ten has taken “no good answers” on COVID-19 to a whole new level.

Wednesday, the Big Ten announced it is reversing course and will, in fact, play football this fall, games starting next month, on “Oct. 23-24,” with an eight-game league schedule plus a conference title game the target goal, which would allow the league to get back in the mix for the College Football Playoff.

The return includes “daily antigen testing” for everyone on a practice field before every practice and game. All players who test positive for COVID-19 will need to “undergo comprehensive cardiac testing,” the Big Ten announced. The 14 Big Ten schools also will start their own collective cardiac registry to share information.

So, did the Big Ten presidents cave? Or did they listen to the evidence?

If it was the medical and scientific evidence that ruled the day, that in itself suggests the league screwed up last month by not waiting a little longer for such evidence.

“We just believed collectively, there’s too much uncertainty,” said Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren when the league announced on Aug. 11 that it was suspending fall sports competition.

That was also the day Big Ten presidents left Warren alone out in the wind, letting him do all the talking. Warren made his own mistakes, such as publicly saying later that month that the decision would not be revisited. That, in fact, was never his decision to make.

When you also had the athletic director at Penn State, Sandy Barbour, saying last month that it was unclear to her if there had been an actual vote to suspend fall sports, there was a clear sign that communications issues were internal, not just to the outside world.

Even this week, the Big Ten offered a master class on mixed messaging. On the same Tuesday morning that a hot microphone picked up the University of Nebraska president saying the announcement of Big Ten season would be coming Tuesday night, the University of Wisconsin chancellor testified before a U.S. Senate committee, offering mixed messages about whether it was safe to return.

“Until we have answers to that,” Wisconsin chancellor Rebecca Blank said about questions on testing and health issues, “we will keep our season postponed.”

We get that a certain level of craziness is baked into all this. Parents of some Big Ten football players protested last month outside conference headquarters. Just as the league made plans to come back, one of the sons of a protester announced he was opting out, not playing, preparing for the NFL. But that’s OK, really. Individual players should all do what they have to do. (As for their parents … nope, it ain’t about you.)

The Big Ten certainly heard its own highest-profile coaches loudly lobby to return to play. But those voices, including Penn State’s James Franklin, were loud just before the August announcement. So internal dissent alone couldn’t have swayed this enterprise back into kicking off. Suggesting the presidents buckled because of their coaches is dismissing the level of arrogance required of a Big Ten president.

The presidents probably thought that if the Big Ten and Pac-12 suspended football, the other Power 5 schools would fall in line. Surely, that school in South Bend would say, not worth it.

Bad bet, it turned out. That presidential arrogance can swing in other directions, too.

This time, the Pac-12 isn’t rushing to join the Big Ten. They may eventually play on the West Coast — and they sound excited about testing advances out there — but this return isn’t a tandem effort. The Big Ten is on its own island.

Last month, I gave the Big Ten full credit for being reasonable in stopping sports, worried about the unknowns of COVID-19. I still give them that credit. An Indiana University freshman lineman’s heart issues deserved examining. The death of a former Florida State basketball player deserved attention. All of it suggested caution.

It’s reasonable to wonder why if the evidence looks so much better — why isn’t the Ivy League returning to play, or the rest of FCS football, or the Mid-American conference, or Division II, or Division III?

Let’s acknowledge plenty of the answer involves money, both potential revenue lost, and also the costs of the kind of testing needed to make players feel safe.

To be clear, everyone wants sports back, everywhere. Nobody is rooting against it. This weekend, you could have seen bits and pieces of Notre Dame football, U.S. Open tennis, the Eagles, the Union, the NBA playoffs, the Phillies. It was great to watch it all.

Soon enough, expect Penn State football to be added to the pile, with a Temple kickoff slated ahead of that. If there is a kickoff involving the Nittany Lions on Oct. 24, hopefully the worst fallout from this whole episode turns out to be, it was a Big Ten PR disaster. At least that’s the kind of fallout you can survive.