The Big Ten had done the right thing. They looked at a sports landscape ravaged by the virus, and decided to shelve the football season.
In an 11-3 tally, presidents of the 14 schools voted to postpone the season.
But then pressure was applied, as fans griped, players griped, the damn coach of Nebraska, Scott Frost, griped, and Donald Trump griped. They also saw other conferences set to start their seasons while they remained on the sidelines.
A lawsuit was filed. Calls were made from the White House to the conference’s commissioner.
But despite all that, I was convinced the Big Ten would hold firm. They weren’t alone, after all, as the Pac-12 joined them.
The University of Michigan’s president, Dr. Mark Schlissel, is an epidemiologist. He’d do what was right.
Of course the conference caved, as the financial losses would surely have been too great. So even as campuses like Wisconsin and Michigan were forced into lockdown, football players were told to suit up.
Since the Big Ten’s reversal, the conference has watched the virus spread throughout the SEC, from players to coaches.
We can get into the whole idea of institutions of higher learning becoming dependent upon the money their athletic programs generate. What sense does that make, especially when it requires putting “student-athletes” in harm’s way?
Full disclosure, I’m a Wisconsin grad. I’ve seen how money from a successful athletic program can alter a campus. When I was in Madison, the football team didn’t go to bowl games, and the basketball squad never made the tournament. At best, it was NIT-bound. Camp Randall Stadium, where the football Badgers play, never sold out. It was mostly empty. The band had an entire section in the stands all to itself. Wisconsin’s only massive success was its hockey team, but hockey doesn’t drive dollars.
The idea of making money off the athletic department had been a foreign idea. In a book about the program, entitled From Red Ink to Roses, sportswriter Rick Telander detailed the farce that had been Wisconsin’s athletic department before the state stepped in to get the school’s financials in order. The state found IOUs in a cash box, according to Telander, and the school had no idea that TV networks should be paying them to broadcast their games.
Using football or basketball teams as a moneymaker was unfathomable.
But the arrival of Barry Alvarez from Notre Dame to lead the football team, and its subsequent Rose Bowl victory after the 1993 season, changed everything. Money poured in as everyone wanted to be a part of sellout games and football hysteria.
In the years following, new buildings popped up all over campus. Cash flowed to the basketball team, which now regularly plays in The Big Dance, and the hockey team got a brand new state-of-the-art arena on campus when the Kohl Center opened in 1998 — built by money that came in from super-wealthy donor and former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl.
I say all this because the Big Ten’s reversal is now an unmitigated mistake. Their star recruit quarterback Graham Mertz, who threw five TDs in his first start last week, tested positive for COVID-19, and under Big Ten regulations must sit out 21 days. His backup is in quarantine.
The state of Wisconsin, right now, is the epicenter for the virus. Neither the university nor its football program have been spared.
“This morning I received the news that I had tested positive via a PCR test I took yesterday,” Badgers football coach Paul Chryst announced today.
“I informed my staff and the team this morning and am currently isolating at home. I had not been experiencing any symptoms and feel good as of this morning.”
Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s game with Nebraska — the school that broke ranks after the Big Ten initially decided not to play — has just been cancelled.
Oh, and cases in Nebraska are on the rise.
The Big Ten had a chance to be a good example, to show the other conferences a proper path.
They failed as a conference, and these presidents failed as educators.
Because in the end, these are not football franchises. They are places of learning.