On Aug. 11, the presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten voted to postpone fall sports due to the coronavirus. On Wednesday, just over a month later, the conference announced there would be a fall season after all with football returning on Oct. 24. At both announcements, health and safety was touted as the conference's biggest concern.
"As the conference made a decision to look at return to play, I want to stress that this decision was made under the guidance of medical professionals," Maryland Athletic Director Damon Evans said Wednesday. "The health, the safety and the wellness of our student athletes remain paramount and at the forefront of the decision-making process."
But how could that be true when a month ago the conference said it wasn't going to play football for the exact same reason? Wednesday's announcement has drawn criticism from those wondering what exactly has changed in the past month that has suddenly made football safe when it wasn't a month ago?
"About a month ago, we were all just hypothesizing about what we can do," said Dr. Yvette Rooks, head team physician and assistant director of the University of Maryland Health Center. "We were looking at what was out there. I mean, this playbook on COVID is being written as we go along. We have not experienced something like this before in America and especially how it's involved sports, sports on the national level all the way down to amateur sports."
In August, the Big Ten faced backlash for postponing football from coaches, players, parents and even politicians. Now two weeks into the season, seeing other teams and conferences able to play was seen by many as the final straw in the mounting pressure on the conference to bring back football.
Rooks, however, says this decision has been in the works for several weeks and is the result of extensive research done by the conference and not on any external pressure.
"A month ago, a team was put together by our commissioner [Kevin Warren] and by the college chancellors and presidents to investigate every aspect of COVID and how it'd affect anybody, especially the student-athlete, especially the football student-athlete because that was the sport that we're trying to get back initially first," Rooks said. "And so we turned to our infectious disease experts, we turned to our cardiologists and we all came together and formed these different task force that met almost weekly. The commissioner then brought us together and selected a few members and we called it the Return to Safe Activity Task Force to get us back."
Through the sharing of information, the conference was able to put together a set of protocols under which it was determined football could safely return. In fact, the conference has gone above what other conferences are doing in terms of testing.
"No one in any other conferences thus far is going to be testing six or seven days a week," Rooks said.
With the new protocols in place, the league is confident it can move forward with a season. So confident, in fact, that the season's return date of Oct. 24 is just eight weeks before the conference championship game of Dec. 19. With an eight-game season followed by the conference championship game, there is no wiggle room at all for postponements.
Other conferences built several open dates into the schedule in case games had to be pushed back. The Big Ten will not have that option. But, by not rushing into the season, the conference bought itself some time to determine the best medical protocols possible in order to keep the players safe and the conference is banking on those added measures allowing the conference to play a full schedule without seeing any outbreaks among its schools.
"That was innovation, so the Big Ten showed innovation," Rooks said, "We had a thought process and we shared information that had not been shared before and we came to the conclusion with all those thought leaders that now we can put something together to our college presidents and chancellors and to our athletic directors that we can say this is the safest thing to protect the student welfare and their health and safety as they get out there and attempt to practice and to compete."