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Noreen Murphy, the mother of a University of Illinois women's soccer player, and other parents of college athletes in the Big Ten Conference protested at the conference's headquarters in Rosemont, Ill., on Aug. 21.

Quinn Harris/Stringer via Getty Images

For several weeks, it appeared that the Big Ten Conference would weather waves of criticism from athletes, parents, football coaches, state governors and federal officials and stick with its original decision to postpone fall sports because of the pandemic and consider spring competition instead.

But the league announced Wednesday that it would instead begin football competition in October, a reversal that college crisis analysts and athletic experts found surprising and potentially damaging to the conference and its institutions’ reputations.

It was previously “abundantly clear” to the conference’s leaders that the medical risks to athletes -- coronavirus infection and a possible heart condition among football players stemming from it -- were too uncertain to proceed, Commissioner Kevin Warren said in the original announcement postponing the fall season on Aug. 11. After immediate criticism of the decision, Warren reiterated in an open letter the following week that the postponement was “overwhelmingly” supported by the Council of Presidents and Chancellors, or COP/C, which includes leaders from each of the conference’s 14 member institutions. He wrote that the decision “will not be revisited.”

But then parents protested outside the Big Ten offices in Illinois and eight University of Nebraska football players sued the conference, questioning how Big Ten leaders reached the decision to postpone, USA Today reported. The Nebraska players claimed the decision caused “irreparable harm” to the athletes because they would miss out on a chance to market themselves before the professional football draft and argued that the conference was contractually obligated to act in the best interest of athletes, the newspaper reported.

President Donald Trump tweeted it was “disgraceful” that the conference would not play football during the fall and had a conversation with Warren the next day, which the commissioner called “productive and interesting.” Pressure also mounted from the league’s most notable football programs, such as Ohio State University and the University of Michigan, which “carry a lot of weight administratively” in the Big Ten, said Darrell Lovell, a professor of public policy and administration at West Texas A&M University and a policy research affiliate for the College Crisis Initiative, or C2i, which has studied colleges’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

By initially standing firm, the Big Ten leaders positioned themselves as prioritizing the health and safety of athletes over the revenue that would be lost with an altered football season, Lovell said. The Pac-12 Conference, which has member institutions in the Pacific Northwest, California and Arizona, also decided to postpone its fall sports competition until 2021. But when other major football conferences, such as the Big 12, Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference, did not follow suit and proceeded with fall football, the Big Ten was “left out.” Games in a few of those conferences began last weekend.

“I call it ‘COVID chicken,’ a game of COVID chicken,” Lovell said. “The truth is that the Big Ten and Pac-12 blinked first, hedged their bets, almost as if they were expecting the others to go with them … They characterized this as a defining moment for administrative morality and ethics. To walk that back in week three, that’s fairly surprising. We don’t see that in higher education administration.”

The Big Ten now has to explain what changed over the last month to make the COP/C go from being unwilling to risk athletes’ health by playing football this fall to coming up with a new plan that resumes play on Oct. 23 and supposedly ensures the health and safety of athletes, Lovell said.

Warren defended the decision during a televised press conference Wednesday and explained that the Big Ten leaders were able to work out specific COVID-19 and cardiac testing protocols and thresholds for pausing competition that the presidents and chancellors were all comfortable with. League leaders “are so much more prepared” than they were in mid-August, Warren said during the press conference.

“We had to go to work, we had to be fluid and show some flexibility,” Warren said. “Once we reached that point that we felt comfortable going forward and able to create that environment, we were able to go forward … One thing that’s important about leadership is that you are in the perpetual process of gathering information, analyzing information, setting high standards and looking at each other to say, we have now met those standards for our student athletes to participate.”

The Big Ten announcement of the return to play only set a timeline for the resumption of football and not other fall sports, which the league said “will be announced shortly.” The delay on an announcement about women’s fall sports raises questions about compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the law that prohibits sex discrimination at federally funded institutions.

In order to remain in compliance with Title IX, institutions must provide equitable opportunities for women and men to compete in athletics, and institutions could be out of compliance if women’s fall sports are not played at all, said Audrey Anderson, counsel at the law firm Bass, Berry & Sims and former general counsel for Vanderbilt University. Title IX violations could occur if women’s and men’s sports were receiving disparate treatment “to the extreme” when it comes to COVID-19 testing protocols, Anderson said.

Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports media at Ithaca College and expert in social justice issues in sport, said female athletes in the Big Ten must have the opportunity for a “comparable experience” to the nine-game football season.

“If the conference comes up with a plan to allow or facilitate participation for the other sports throughout the rest of the year, then their Title IX base is most likely covered,” Staurowsky said.

Ohio State noted in a press release that the conference will resume with football, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, and men’s and women’s cross country. James Borchers, head physician for the university's football team and co-chair of the conference’s return-to-competition medical subcommittee, said during the press conference that all sports would have the same testing protocols.

The “stringent” protocols that the Big Ten will use include daily COVID-19 testing of athletes and athletic staff members before practices and games using a rapid antigen test that can determine a current viral infection in about 15 minutes, an overview from the conference’s medical subcommittee said. The Pac-12 announced on Sept. 3 that it had agreed to a partnership with a diagnostic test company to provide the antigen tests to its athletes as well. These types of tests provide results quickly but “are generally less sensitive” than another form of testing, a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR test, according to interim guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Big Ten athletes who test positive for the antigen test will require a PCR test to confirm the initial result, and those results could take 24 hours or more to be determined, Borchers said. But because of the rapid results of the daily test, players will be removed immediately from interaction with teammates if they test positive, he said. If a team’s COVID-19 positivity rate exceeds 7.5 percent of all players or 5 percent of tests administered within a given week, that’s a trigger to pause practice and competition, the medical subcommittee overview said.

“We know that if we can test daily with rapid testing in these small populations of teams, we’re very likely to reduce infectiousness in practice and game competitions to near 100 percent,” Borchers said. “We can never say 100 percent, but we feel very confident that with that approach, we’ll be able to make our practice and competition environments as risk-free as we possibly can.”

The conference also established cardiac testing for athletes recovering from COVID-19, including an echocardiogram and cardiac MRI, to ensure athletes have not contracted myocarditis, a heart complication that can develop due to inflammation and potential scarring of the heart while battling the virus. Exercising with myocarditis can increase the risk of cardiac arrest and sudden death among athletes and was a concern of conference leaders when the initial postponement decision was made in August. Athletes recovering from COVID-19 will not be able to return to play until these tests are performed over the course of at least 21 days, Borchers said.

The COVID-19 testing protocol is “ambitious” and different from the approach from other conferences that are resuming competition, such as the SEC, which is testing athletes three times each week, said Sam Owusu, a student research analyst for C2i who has focused on the coronavirus response of “Power Five” athletic conferences. The volume of testing that the Big Ten is pursuing is expensive and yet leaders are putting a plan in place to halt the season if they need to, which the conference has been fairly transparent about, Owusu said.

“They’re putting millions of dollars into a robust testing plan, but there could be a potential outbreak at an institution or a couple institutions in the conference, and the whole season’s done,” Owusu said.

Lovell questioned whether the conference's justification for restarting and evidence from conference medical officials could outweigh the reality of coronavirus spread at Big Ten campuses overall. According to C2i’s data, those 14 campuses altogether have had about 8,000 COVID-19 cases, he said. Some of the institutions, such as Rutgers University, the University of Maryland, and Indiana University at Bloomington, are also operating classes primarily online, and Michigan State University is entirely online, according to C2i data.

However, Lovell said the conference's transparency about its triggers for halting practice and competition and required data submissions from member institutions to a designated “chief infection officer” should be “commended.” The public, conferencewide protocols are not something that has been published by other Power Five leagues and could improve perception of the Big Ten’s decision, Lovell said.

“People’s frustrations with higher ed is not with the decisions, but for the metrics for the decision,” he said. “When do we push a class online, when do we go online as an institution, what’s the trigger event or tipping point? The fact that they've posted tipping points, that helps them. I think that helps them quite a lot.”

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