The Big Ten will play conference-only schedules in all fall sports, including football, should the league be able to participate in athletic events in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the conference announced Thursday.
As the first member of the Bowl Subdivision to take such a step, the Big Ten’s move could portend similar changes across the highest level of college sports given the continued uncertainty caused by COVID-19.
“We are facing uncertain and unprecedented times, and the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches, game officials, and others associated with our sports programs and campuses remain our number one priority,” the conference said in a statement.
Attention now turns to the Big 12, Pac-12, ACC and SEC for what they will do. Asked by the Des Moines Register on Thursday if there will be an announcement soon from the Big 12 on playing conference games only, commissioner Bob Bowlsby replied, “No.”
The SEC “will continue to meet regularly with our campus leaders in the coming weeks, guided by medical advisors, to make the important decisions necessary to determine the best path forward related to SEC fall sports,” commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. “We recognize the challenges ahead and know the well-being of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans must remain at the forefront of those decisions.”
But the Pac-12, which has an historic Rose Bowl partnership with the Big Ten, could be more in line with those schools. In fact, the Pac-12 is talking about playing a conference-only schedule in football, a person familiar with the league’s talks told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday. Coincidentally, Pac-12 CEO’s have a previously scheduled meeting set for Friday.
The ACC is also discussing the option of eliminating non-conference games but isn’t yet at that point, a conference official told USA TODAY Sports. But the Big Ten’s announcement should move ahead the ACC’s timeline for making a decision, the official added.
The Big Ten will play conference-only schedules “based on medical advice” under the caveat that the league is “able to participate in fall sports.”
The NCAA allowed athletes to return to campuses beginning on June 1 and to participate in voluntary team activities. Many FBS athletics departments and football programs have since experienced a large number of positive tests for COVID-19, however, including Clemson, LSU and Texas. The positive tests have included athletes and coaches from all sports and not just football.
The outbreaks have led several programs to table team workouts. Ohio State and North Carolina placed team activities on hold on Wednesday, with UNC announcing it was suspending workouts after 37 athletes tested positive among 429 coronavirus tests.
Limiting competitions to conference-only play will give the Big Ten “the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic,” according to the league’s statement.
Based on the same advice, the statement added, the conference is “also prepared not to play in order to ensure the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes should the circumstances so dictate.”
Fall sports in the Big Ten include football, men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball. Based on medical advice, it will move to conference-only schedules in those sports.
The league’s statement said that details regarding schedules will be released at a later date. The Big Ten traditionally plays nine conference games in football.
“We fully support the actions being taken by the Big Ten Conference, knowing that the health, safety, and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches, and staff is the top priority,” said Iowa athletics director Gary Barta. “While many uncertainties still exist, today’s decision will provide the greatest amount of flexibility as we move forward.”
The Big Ten’s announcement “represents a step, a very important step,” Penn State athletics director Sandy Barbour said. “We feel in order to establish the safest environment possible for our student-athletes, coaches, staff and our community, this is the best path forward.”
The decision comes after the Ivy League announced on Wednesday that it is canceling all fall sports, in the first such move from a conference that competes on the Division I level.
In football, the Big Ten’s move deletes several marquee non-conference games from the schedule, including matchups featuring Ohio State and Oregon, Michigan and Washington, and Wisconsin and Notre Dame.
Having no non-conference opponents could have a big impact on smaller programs who rely on “guarantee games” at major schools for a big part of the athletic budget. It is unclear whether those contracts would call for a penalty payment.