The Big Ten Conference announced Thursday it will not play nonconference games in football and several other sports this fall, the most dramatic move yet by a power conference because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The conference cited medical advice in making its decision and added ominously that the plan would be applied only “if the conference is able to participate in fall sports.”
Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said it was “much easier if we’re just working with our Big Ten institutions” in terms of things like scheduling and traveling.
“We may not have sports in the fall,” Warren told the Big Ten Network. “We may not have a college football season in the Big Ten.
“So we just wanted to make sure that this was the next logical step to always rely on our medical experts to keep our student-athletes at the center of all of our decisions and make sure that they are as healthy as they possibly can be from a mental, a physical, an emotional health and wellness standpoint.”
There has been deep unease that the pandemic will deal a blow to fall sports after wiping out hundreds of games, including March Madness, this past spring. More than a dozen schools have reported positive tests for the virus among athletes in the past month but the bad news picked up this week as the Ivy League canceled all fall sports and Stanford announced it was cutting 11 varsity sports.
The Big Ten decision is the biggest yet because Bowl Subdivision football games — more than 40 of them, all moneymakers in different ways — were simply erased. And the move didn’t wash away fears the entire fall season could be in jeopardy.
“I am really concerned, that is the question of the day,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said on a conference call after the announcement. “I was cautiously optimistic. I’m not even there now.”
Besides football, the sports affected include men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball.
“By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions, the conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic,” the Big Ten said.
The other big conferences, the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12, have all indicated they intend to play fall sports.
“The Big Ten decisions are interesting and provide additional information to inform our discussions,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “At this time our medical and scientific advisors have suggested we should move ahead slowly and with constant re-evaluation. We plan to continue to prepare for all available scenarios until we are informed that some are no longer viable.”
Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey said league officials “will continue to meet with regularly with our campus leaders in the coming weeks, guided by the medical advisors, to make the important decisions necessary to determine the best path forward related to the SEC fall sports.”
The marquee nonconference matchups in the Big Ten this season included Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin on Oct. 3 at Lambeau Field, home of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. Other big matchups included Michigan at Washington, Ohio State-Oregon, Penn State-Virginia Tech and Miami-Michigan State.
Much of the pain will be felt at smaller schools that lean heavily on the big-money games to help fund their athletic budgets. Hours before the Big Ten announcement, Northern Iowa, which will lose a Sept. 5 game at Iowa, said it expected an athletics budget shortfall to exceed $1 million.
A handful of teams were scheduled to play two Big Ten opponents, including Bowling Green, Central Michigan and Northern Illinois. Bowling Green athletic director Bob Moosbrugger said the Big Ten’s decision “is the tip of the iceberg.”
“Ten FBS conferences have signed a college football playoff agreement with an expectation that we will work together for the good of college football,” Moosbrugger said. “If we are to solve these challenges and be truly dedicated to protecting the health and safety of our student-athletes, we need to do a better job of working together.”
Illinois State was scheduled to play at Illinois on Sept. 4.
“Obviously, we are disappointed by the decision, as there are many people affiliated with both universities that have had this game circled on their calendars for a long time,” Illinois State athletic director Larry Lyons said. He said the budget is in a “constant state of flux,” but there are no plans to cut sports.
Memphis, which had been scheduled to visit Purdue on Sept. 12, announced Thursday it was cutting administrative and sports operation budgets 14% in addition to some other personnel savings.
The Big Ten said it would release detailed schedules later and continue to evaluate other sports. The league said its schools will honor scholarships for athletes who choose not to compete in the upcoming academic year because of concerns about the coronavirus.
Indiana athletic director Scott Dolson said he and his Big Ten colleagues “know that there remain many questions that still need to be answered, and we will work toward finding those answers in the coming weeks.”
In the SEC, Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk was asked about the possible rationale for a conference-only schedule.
“Probably, it’s a comfort level of how protocols are being enacted, how testing is done and then keeping it within that family, if you will — your expanded social circle or social pod,” said Sterk, whose Tigers play in the SEC. “You might be able to control things more that way, or feel like you can, anyway versus the unknown of people coming from outside our 11 states.”