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The Big Ten is lucky it was only Nebraska.
Can you imagine what would’ve happened this week had the SEC been the first league to wave the white flag on 2020 sports? Hoo boy. We might have seen a mass secession to the Sun Belt Conference.
I was not surprised one bit that Scott Frost and NU officials ran against the grain. I was stunned that more Big Ten constituents didn’t follow. Well, they’re talking now. Not coaches and A.D.s, but athletes and their parents. And they’re focused on the issue that frequently costs officials public trust.
The mistake of Kevin Warren and Big Ten presidents wasn’t canceling fall sports. Their mistake was leaving the main characters out of the process.
You might roll your eyes at that criticism. But this isn’t 1980. Coaches and athletes — football especially — are your breadwinners. The most prominent faces on campus. To watch them train as carefully as possible for two months — according to schools’ demands — only to pull the plug on their season without an explanation?
That’s not gonna fly.
By Saturday afternoon, the letter had been written and was in the proofreading stage when Gene Benhart got the call. “I’m fired up!” the father of Nebraska offensive tackle Bryce Benhart said. “I’ve been fired up all afternoon.”
No wonder Wisconsin players expressed their anger to the media. “The chancellors tell us that now we can go to class and still play football 20 hours a week,” senior tackle Cole Van Lanen said. “As a player that makes absolutely zero sense. But we can’t go play a football game?”
No wonder Ohio State and Iowa parents sent letters of protest to the conference office. The Big Ten’s refusal to accept input from athletes, according to Hawkeye parents, was “appalling” and “infuriating.”
You might think that 170,000 American deaths is enough evidence to cancel. But this situation is complicated by politics, economics, inconsistent safety standards and a short shelf life for college athletes.
Big Ten officials should’ve informed coaches and athletes of where they stood and welcomed an exchange of ideas before reaching a conclusion. Instead, they provided no evidence. Shared no science. Kevin Warren didn’t even try to make the case in public.
Basically, he treated his coaches and athletes like elementary students the morning of a snowstorm.
The league may have made the right decision; let’s not ignore that possibility. The SEC, Big 12 and ACC may soon find themselves in a public relations disaster. Locker room outbreaks may shut down their plans and prompt swift lawsuits.
But if that happens, the Big Ten better not jump on its soapbox. Because the league didn’t exhibit adequate leadership, either.
This is a time of rapid evolution in college sports. Athletes are receiving a bigger cut of profits and gaining a stronger public voice. The irony here is that the Big Ten didn’t need to yield its microphone to 20-year-olds.
The league merely needed to use that microphone to explain what just happened.
In one week, Nebraska went from allegedly going "rogue" and being the Darth Vader of the Big Ten... to having more and more of the force on their side.
Postponing has consequences
Nobody likes the NCAA, right? Just ask Kansas or North Carolina or Louisville or USC or, well, just about everybody. But a little central leadership wouldn’t hurt in times like this.
College football is the sport with nobody in charge. We may see some fascinating consequences in the coming year.
Imagine this scenario: The SEC, ACC and Big 12 complete a fall season. Then the Big Ten and Pac-12 follow in the spring.
Then we get to the summer of 2021 and the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are ready to go again. Return to normal, right? Meanwhile, the Big Ten and Pac-12 want to wait until October to give their athletes an offseason.
What happens then? How to stage a real national championship without your Power Five leagues on the same page?
I’m sure the SEC would be very receptive to the Big Ten’s wishes. Yeah, right.
The lack of in-person visits has hurt the Huskers in recruiting the 2021 class, but Nebraska and its commits are finding new ways to lessen that damage.
Saturday morning in Wahoo, I attended my first football game of 2020. No joke.
My fifth grader’s season opener came down to the final play. Our game-winning touchdown pass got deflected in the right flat, stirring memories of Ken Calhoun in the ’84 Orange Bowl. No!
Our 10-year-olds shed a few tears. I couldn’t even muster disappointment. After another devastating week in sports, football at any level felt pretty darned good.
I don’t know what Nebraskans are going to do on Saturdays this fall. Hiking? Golf? Apple picking?
But I hope we don’t waste an opportunity to reflect on our traditions. Appreciate why we fell in love with football in the first place.
In the process, don’t forget to stoke the fires of the next generation. With or without the Huskers, they need cheers, too.