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Big Ten finalizes football schedule, but testing is holding up final decision


Tony Paul Matt Charboneau Angelique S. Chengelis   | The Detroit News

They have a schedule.

Now, will they actually have a season?

The Big Ten has approved the framework for an eight-game, conference-only football schedule, ideally starting the weekend of Oct. 17 but possibly Oct. 24, even as one chancellor earlier Tuesday poured cold water on the idea of reinstating fall sports.

A source close to the situation, who asked to remain anonymous because they aren't authorized to speak publicly about the conference's plans, told The News about the eight-game plan, which, if started Oct. 17 or 24, would allow the Big Ten time to be eligible for the College Football Playoff.

The Big Ten Championship game would be Dec. 19; the College Football Playoff committee announces its four-team field the following day.

The scheduling revelation came the same day a pair of Big Ten executives gave wildly different perspectives of where the conference stands in its deliberations over whether to reverse its Aug. 11 decision to postpone fall sports.

Wisconsin chancellor Rebecca Blank, speaking in front of a U.S. Senate committee, said the Big Ten continues to wait on sufficient answers to medical concerns before making any announcement on a 2020 season — after Nebraska president Ted Carter, caught speaking on a hot mic, teased a Tuesday night announcement that never came.

Blank, specifically, cited two areas of concern when the conference initially postponed Aug. 11: Testing and contact tracing, and myocarditis or heart complications.

"Until we have answers to that, we will keep our season postponed," Blank told the committee of Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. "Once we have answers to that, and to some of those issues and things, that we have a way to deal with them effectively, we will try to plan a delayed season.

"When such a decision happens, your first question should be, 'What's changed?' And hopefully we will have answers to exactly the issues I just raised."

Testing breakthroughs have given hope to the conference, specifically the emergence of rapid testing that the White House, during a phone conversation between President Trump and Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, offered to help supply.

The conference, though, is seeking its own means of acquiring the tests, like a partnership with a health-care supplier, similar to a deal the Pac-12, also shut down, has reached with Quidel Corp. Taking from the White House causes issues on two levels: It adds to the politicization of the situation, and morally, it raises questions whether sports programs should be at the front of the line for testing, over the general public. 

Blank, meanwhile, was appearing before the Senate committee to discuss issues of amateur athletics and the prospects of them being paid.

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, raised the Big Ten issues, in relation to the ACC, which is playing its season despite multiple early postponements because of COVID-19 outbreaks. More than a dozen games already have been postponed, including the biggest rivalry in Kaine's home state, Virginia-Virginia Tech.

He asked Blank if there would be a Big Ten vote this week, and while she wouldn't directly answer that question, in her response Blank did become the third Big Ten leader to suggest there was no vote the first time around, despite the conference saying in a Nebraska district court that there was an 11-3 vote to postpone.

"Decisions within the Big Ten are largely majority-based decisions," Blank said. "But I'll be honest, we almost always decide everything by consensus.

"We very rarely take votes."

Previously, presidents at Michigan State and Minnesota have suggested there was no technical vote the first time around, leading eight Nebraska football players to sue, seeking transparency from the conference in its decision-making process. Since, attorneys generals in Ohio and Nebraska have threatened litigation against the Big Ten.

Blank's appearance before the Senate committee came hours after Carter, Nebraska's president, was caught on a hot mic at an event in Lincoln, Neb., saying the Big Ten was preparing to make an announcement Tuesday night.

In an interview afterward, Carter said his comments were taken out of context (they weren't), while saying Nebraska remains "cautiously optimistic" for a season.

Michigan president Mark Schlissel and Michigan State president Samuel L. Stanley, both infectious-disease specialists and both of whom supported the postponement in August, declined comment when reached by The News this week. Schlissel spent much of Tuesday answering questions about his campus' confidence in him, amid the ongoing strike by the Graduate Employees' Organization, which charges that UM's reopening plans put students and faculty at risk.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 remain shut down, while the ACC, SEC and Big 12 are playing. The ACC and Big 12 have started, while the SEC is planning to start later this month.

Kaine asked why some conferences are playing, amid all the campus outbreaks, including two major current ones in the Big Ten, at Michigan State and Wisconsin.

"It's big money, and it's hard to pass up," Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, said at Tuesday's Senate hearing.

"Athletic directors and coaches have been pretty frank about that."

Huma suggested the money supersedes the safety for many conferences.

"They're very much ill-equipped and pretty much unwilling to do what's right in terms of enforcement when it comes to COVID and other health issues," he said.

Several Big Ten schools, including Michigan, have said a full football shutdown could cost their schools $100 million on more. At Michigan State, the projection is a loss of $85 million. Big Ten schools receive $35 million each for their TV contract. Michigan receives about $46 million in football ticket sales, Michigan State about $20 million. Some Big Ten schools, including Iowa, are exploring loans to cover their losses.

Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa were the three schools that supported playing a fall season before the Aug. 11 announcement. Big Ten bylaws say 60% support is needed to pass major decisions, so if the Big Ten does actually hold a vote this time, it would need to flip six votes to reinstate fall sports.

Fans have been waiting anxiously for days for a verdict, after the 14 Big Ten presidents and chancellors met Sunday and were presented updated medical data from the conference's team of experts, then met again Monday. No vote happened Sunday, or Monday. Blank did squash rumors earlier this week that the Big Ten could play with some members sitting out; it's all or nothing, she told reporters Monday.

The proposed schedule calls for eight conference games and one bye week if the season were to start Oct. 17, or eight consecutive weeks if started Oct. 24. The later the start date, the less the wiggle room should the Big Ten encounter more COVID-19 outbreaks. More than half the Big Ten programs have experienced some level of outbreaks since athletes returned to campus, including Michigan and Michigan State.

Most recently, Michigan State students are ordered to quarantine for two weeks, while Wisconsin made the decision to switch to remote learning for at least two weeks.

"Our concern," said Blank, "is that we do this according to the best science and the best medical advice possible."

Follow @tonypaul1984, @mattcharboneau and @chengelis on Twitter for the latest on the Big Ten's deliberations about the fall sports season.