The Big Ten won’t play football this fall because of concerns about Covid-19, becoming the first of college sports’ so-called power conferences to yield to the pandemic. The season may instead be played in the spring if the pandemic eases in the coming months. ESPN reported that the PAC-12, one of the other Power Five conferences, will also call off its season.
The move announced on Tuesday comes six days after the conference that includes some of the most popular teams in college sports, such as Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State, had released a revised conference-only schedule that it hoped would help navigate a fall season with potential Covid-19 disruptions.
Tuesday’s news was not a surprise. Speculation has run rampant for several days that the Big Ten was moving toward this decision. On Monday, coaches throughout the conference tried to push back the tide, publicly pleading for more time and threatening to look elsewhere for games this fall.
“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith expressed sorrow for the students who would miss out on sports in the coming months.
“This is an incredibly sad day for our student-athletes, who have worked so hard and been so vigilant fighting against this pandemic to get this close to their season,” Smith said. “My heart aches for them and their families. [Ohio State] president-elect Johnson and I were totally aligned in our efforts to delay the start of the season rather than postpone. I am so grateful to her for all her efforts in support of our student-athletes and a traditional fall season.
“As an institution and as an athletic department, we have a responsibility first and foremost to care for the health, safety and wellness of our students and staff, and I believe we have done that successfully.”
The future of the college football season has drawn in politicians. On Monday, Donald Trump tweeted his support for college football players pushing for the opportunity to compete this season.
“The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled. #WeWantToPlay,” wrote Trump, using a hashtag started by college football players advocating for the season to go ahead. On Tuesday, the president said cancelling the season would be a “tragic mistake”.
The president has attended several college football games in the last few years, and has generally been given a warmer reception than he has at other sporting events. He is also popular in many of the southern states that make up college football’s heartland.
The Power Five conferences – the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC – dominate college sports, generating billions of dollars in revenue. Teams such as Michigan and Ohio State play in front of crowds in excess of 100,000 for big home games.
The Big Ten touts itself as the oldest college athletic conference in the country, dating back to 1896 when it was called the Western Conference, and its schools have been playing football ever since. It became the Big Ten in 1918 and grew into a football powerhouse.
The 14 Big Ten schools span from Maryland and Rutgers on the east coast to Iowa and Nebraska out west. Not only has it been one of the most successful conferences on the field but off the field it has become one of the wealthiest. The Big Ten, with its lucrative television network, distributes about $50m per year to its members.
The Big Ten’s decision also affects cross country, field hockey, soccer and women’s volleyball.