LINCOLN — As the autumn leaves are changing colors, Nebraska football — and the rest of the Big Ten along with it — will return.
That’s after the league on Wednesday morning reversed an Aug. 11 decision to postpone fall sports — including college football — by unanimously approving a nine-game season that will start the weekend of Oct. 24.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the decision to play will include considerable, rigorous medical guardrails — including daily COVID-19 antigen testing, a battery of heart tests for any player who tests positive and a 21-day return protocol for any positive test, as well — and will not include any fans from the public. Other than families of players and coaches, Memorial Stadium — normally the state’s third-largest city on a football Saturday — will be empty.
But there will be Big Ten football on television screens, be they in basements or at sports bars. Eight regular season contests — four at home and four on the road — and a “plus one” game that pits the Big Ten East vs. the Big Ten West in the order the teams finished on Dec. 19.
Nebraska can immediately go from 12 to 20 practice hours per week, and will be able to put on pads once every Big Ten team has the antigen tests, which will be no later than Sept. 30. The training table will reopen for the football team and some of the athletic department employees who had been furloughed will be brought back to support playing games. Big Ten teams will be eligible for both the College Football Playoff and Associated Press Top 25 polls, too.
Although NU football coach Scott Frost did not have immediate comment, Nebraska officials, who have pushed hard for a fall football season, received the news with hope and joy.
“Our players want to play, our coaches want to coach and our fans want to watch,” NU Athletic Director Bill Moos said. “We’re going to be able to do all these things now. That’s why it is a celebration. And I believe very strongly: The state of Nebraska needs football. And, believe me, in the world I live in, football needs Nebraska. And we’re going to be able to deliver that.”
A schedule, Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said in a Big Ten Zoom call, should be finished and unveiled later in the week. Unlike the Aug. 11 decision in which Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren essentially spoke alone for the league, the conference this time packed six prominent members of the league onto a call, including Ohio State team physician Dr. James Borchers, who led a league medical subcommittee presentation on how the Big Ten could return to play safely.
The plan includes daily antigen testing that begins no later than Sept. 30 using kits purchased by the Big Ten. The league will receive daily test results on both the players on the roster and the coaches and administrators supporting the players. Nebraska does not plan to share those test results publicly, Moos and UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green said. The “positivity” rate — that is, the number of persons who test positive divided by the total group on the team or the overall support staff — has to stay under certain thresholds, or a program goes into a seven-day pause that will disrupt its tightly packed schedule.
“We know that if we can test daily with rapid testing in these small populations of teams we’re very likely to reduce infectiousness inside practice and game competition to near 100%,” Borchers said. “We can never say 100%, but we feel very confident with that approach that we’ll be able to make our practice and competition environment as risk-free as we possibly can.”
The developments in rapid testing — the Pac-12, Big 12 and Nebraska all secured their own testing solutions in recent weeks — was the key factor in the Big Ten reversing its original decision, said Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro, who is chair of the league's Council of Presidents and Chancellors, or COP/C.
“The facts changed, our minds changed,” Schapiro said. He rebuffed the idea that political pressure or any other factor — presumably including a lawsuit filed by eight Husker football players — factored into the COP/C decision.
"For me, it wasn’t about political pressure, money, lawsuits, or what everyone else was doing,” Schapiro said. “It was the unanimous opinion of our medical experts that evolved over the course of weeks."
However, on Aug. 19 Warren wrote in a letter the decision wouldn’t be revisited at all. In the days after the Big Ten’s decision two league schools — Nebraska and Ohio State — publicly pushed back on the vote. Both, in the face of national media criticism, attempted to lobby for crafting and playing their own schedules. The Big Ten wouldn’t allow it. So parents and players at both schools got vocal.
At OSU, one parent led a protest at Big Ten headquarters in Chicago, and a player — Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields — launched an online petition, signed by hundreds of thousands, asking to play this fall. Buckeye coach Ryan Day, whose team was ranked No. 2 in the preseason Associated Press poll, has been consistently vocal in his desire to play.
At NU, a group of Husker parents wrote a letter and secured a lawyer — Mike Flood, who is running this fall for election to the Nebraska Legislature — to pursue legal action against the Big Ten. Players sued for more information forcing the Big Ten to disclose the numerical result of the vote while, on Friday, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said in a three-page letter to the league that the Big Ten may be out of compliance with the Nebraska Nonprofit Act.
Peterson’s letter is more evidence that the state’s stakeholders — from Gov. Pete Ricketts through NU’s academic administration down to program walk-ons — have been in lockstep about playing football this fall. Nebraska’s athletic department even purchased 1,200 antigen test kits from Quidel for pregame, rapid-response, point-of-care surveillance that can accommodate two teams.
Tim Clare, a member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, credited the "adamant and professional" approach of NU's leadership — Green, Moos and Frost — over the past month.
"Great day to be a Husker," Clare said.
Green acknowledged Wednesday he has been a fierce proponent for playing.
“This is not a static conversation; the world we live in around COVID-19, and mitigating COVID-19 is not one that’s static — it’s dynamic, it’s fluid,” Green said. “We continue to learn more. Knowing what we know about point-of-care antigen tests is considerably more than what we knew going into early August. That is something that has changed for us dramatically.
“But I will say we pushed hard. We pushed repeatedly hard for getting to this point, along with other colleagues. I certainly pushed.”
What else changed? A key factor that concerned Big Ten leaders the first time — concerns over enlarged hearts from athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 — will be addressed through significant protocols. According to a Big Ten release, all COVID-19 positive student-athletes will have to undergo comprehensive cardiac testing to include labs and biomarkers, ECG, echocardiogram and a cardiac MRI. Following cardiac evaluation, student-athletes must receive clearance from a cardiologist designated by the university for the primary purpose of cardiac clearance for COVID-19 positive student-athletes.
The earliest a football player could return after a COVID-19 positive test would be 21 days.
Maryland Athletic Director Damon Evans told The Washington Post the antigen testing — paid by the Big Ten — would cost $700,000-$1 million per institution.
“Everyone associated with the Big Ten should be very proud of the groundbreaking steps that are now being taken to better protect the health and safety of the student-athletes and surrounding communities,” Borchers said.
The league was applauded by some — President Donald Trump, purporting to have helped the situation with a Sept. 1 phone call to Warren, called it “great news” on Twitter — and was derided by a few. One sports columnist for USA Today — who has already written she will not watch college football this fall because of moral objections in the age of COVID-19 — called it the “darkest day” in Big Ten history.
That was not the tone at Nebraska.
“There’s something to be said about hope,” Green said. “We live in a tough time. We live in a time that is challenging for everyone. And I am really hopeful. We’re being able to move forward, we’re being able to try and to make this work. And we’re trusting it’s going to work.”
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