After months of speculation, an initial cancellation, and feedback and outcry from players and fans alike, the Big Ten Conference announced Wednesday morning that they would be resuming the 2020 football season the weekend of October 23-24. The decision comes a month after the Big Ten’s Council of Presidents and Chancellors (COP/C) voted 11-3 to postpone the football season along with the rest of fall sports, citing concerns over the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The announcement comes after the COP/C's adoption of “significant medical protocols,” which include daily COVID-19 tests, cardiac screenings and data-driven analysis to ensure player safety and make further decisions on whether to play each day. Following this adoption, the COP/C voted unanimously to resume the football season.
“From the onset of the pandemic, our highest priority has been the health and the safety of our students. The new medical protocols and standards put into place by the Big Ten Return To Competition Task Force were pivotal in the decision to move forward with sports in the conference,” said Northwestern University President and COP/C chair Morton Schapiro in a statement for the Big Ten. “We appreciate the conference’s dedication to developing the necessary safety procedures for our students and the communities that embrace them.”
Each team, including the Northwestern Wildcats, will undergo rigorous daily testing beginning Sept. 30, and report their results back to the conference. Decisions will be made on a day-to-day basis; a team must have less than 2% of their players test negative for the virus to continue daily practices and operations. If more than 2% come back positive, the team must exercise caution, and if it grows past 5%, practice will be halted and the team will quarantine for seven days.
“Our focus with the Task Force over the last six weeks was to ensure the health and safety of our student-athletes. Our goal has always been to return to competition so all student-athletes can realize their dream of competing in the sports they love,” said Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren. “We are incredibly grateful for the collaborative work that our Return to Competition Task Force have accomplished to ensure the health, safety and wellness of student-athletes, coaches and administrators.”
If all goes well, each team will play eight “regular season” games between Oct 23-24 and the weekend of Dec 12, with a Championship Game being played Dec 19; the eight games will include six divisional matchups and two “cross-divisional” games. In addition, each team not in the Championship will play an additional cross-divisional game that same day, resulting in a nine game season. The quick turnaround of play will allow the Big Ten to finish its season before Dec 20, when the College Football Playoff (CFP) committee will issue its final rankings and select its four championship semifinalists, giving the conference a fighting chance to be included in postseason play.
“I’m ecstatic the Big Ten has built a plan to safely allow our guys the opportunity to play the game they love,” said Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald in a statement released by Northwestern Athletics. “Putting that date on the calendar is an emotional lift for our whole locker room and the Wildcats community.”
Of course, the announcement comes with more pandemic precautions. Every other fall sport season will remain on hold, and Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour told ESPN that no fans will be allowed in any of the stadiums, apart from the players’ families. More logistical information will be released later this week, including the schedules and full information on game day processes.
The announcement also comes during a period of uncertainty for Northwestern students, as some have questioned whether a football season is the right move when thousands of students remain remote for the fall quarter. In addition, some players like Northwestern’s fantastic offensive tackle Rashawn Slater had already opted out of the 2020 season, leaving them with a difficult decision on whether to return. In a press conference, Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips said the decision was made at a conference level, not an individual one:
“This was a conference-wide decision, and as a member of the conference you just try to make the best decision you can for your institution,” said Phillips, while admitting he didn’t have a great answer for it. “It wasn’t done hastily, it was done with a lot of careful consideration. But it’s really a fair question.”
After months of speculation and concern, the ’Cats will begin yet a season unlike any other: Nine games, no fans, one crazy ride. Yet with Fitzgerald returning for his fifteenth season and a quarterback chain eight players long, it’s hard to be fazed by Northwestern football at this point.
They say 2021 might be a better year, and there’d be no better place to start it than in Pasadena. Go ’Cats.