Was the College Football Season Worth It?


A torrent of public criticism was directed at Kevin Warren in the aftermath of the decision to suspend the season. Whether this represented a majority of fans, or only the loudest ones, Warren made an easy target: an inexperienced commissioner new to college football who presided over the shutdown of one of the most visible bastions of Midwestern tradition. No football season meant the cancellation of rivalry games, like the Little Brown Jug (Michigan versus Minnesota) and the Old Oaken Bucket (Indiana versus Purdue), that had been played for a century or more.

In reality, of course, Warren didn’t cancel anything — he didn’t have that authority. But the presidents kept the specifics of their vote confidential, probably because nobody wanted to be on the record opposing football. As a result, speculation persisted that Warren made a unilateral decision. It also didn’t escape notice that his son, Powers Warren, played wide receiver at Mississippi State, a Southeastern Conference university that would soon be starting its season. “Isn’t it ironic,” said the Fox Sports radio personality Clay Travis, “that the Big Ten commissioner’s own son has an opportunity to decide whether or not to play college football, and that that is a decision that is not,” as he put it, given to Big Ten athletes to make about their fall sports.

Echoing the fans and columnists were coaches, players and parents. In a video news conference the day after the decision was announced, Ryan Day, Ohio State’s head football coach, struggled to contain his emotion. As with other programs around the county, Day and his athletes had devoted long hours to preparing for a season in difficult circumstances, paying strict attention to a Covid-19 protocol that included showering in their rooms and avoiding all unnecessary social contact. Suddenly, that season had been swept out from under them. “You don’t just wake up the next morning and everything’s fine,” Day said. “It’s not fine. It’s devastating.” Fields, Ohio State’s quarterback, posted an online petition requesting the immediate reinstatement of the conference’s 2020 schedule. By the next day, it had 250,000 signatures. Eight Nebraska football players filed a lawsuit against the Big Ten, criticizing the process by which the season was postponed as “flawed and ambiguous.” A group calling itself Big 10 Parents United publicized an open letter addressed to Warren expressing “a total lack of confidence” in his leadership. Warren’s response to the criticism emphasized that the conference’s presidents had voted and that the result was “overwhelmingly in support of postponing fall sports.” The vote, he insisted, would not be revisited.

On the last day of August, Timothy Pataki, an aide to President Trump, called Warren on his cellphone. The president wanted to speak with him the following morning, Pataki told him. There was little doubt what he wanted to say. “Disgraceful that Big Ten is not playing football,” Trump tweeted two days earlier. “Let them PLAY.” After Pataki’s call, Warren prepared for his conversation with the president. “Keep an open mind,” his wife, Greta, said.

Trump’s motivation was easy to decipher. There was a good chance that the coming election would be decided in the Big Ten’s heartland; Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, each of which had at least one conference member, were all considered swing states. If Trump could persuade the Big Ten to play a football season, or even appear to have done so, his electoral prospects were likely to benefit. He hadn’t said a word about the Pac-12, which also had decided to postpone its season. But California, Oregon and Washington, where that conference is centered, are solidly blue.

The morning of Sept. 1, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases across America passed six million, the White House called Warren and put Trump on the line. The conversation lasted 15 minutes. Trump offered to give whatever help he could to resurrect the Big Ten’s season. Warren responded that he would be in touch if he needed anything. “On the one yard line!” Trump tweeted later that morning.

They weren’t that close. But despite Warren’s insistence that the decision was final, the conference’s position had in fact started to shift. In the days after the vote that stopped the season, Warren created a Return to Competition Task Force, which included subcommittees devoted to medical issues, scheduling and television. That put presidents like Samuel Stanley of Michigan State, an infectious-disease specialist, on the same calls with athletic directors and doctors. (In retrospect, Warren admits, this was probably something he should have done months earlier.) The task force was meant to help lead the conference toward a decision to play the 2020 football season eventually — perhaps starting in January, or in the spring, when the championships of most other intercollegiate sports, the ones staged by the N.C.A.A., would be contested.



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