Big Ten reverses course, announces plans for 2020 season
Never did Payton Thorne imagine that he would be able to sit in his college apartment and watch wall-to-wall college football games on a Saturday afternoon.
That's because he was supposed to be too busy playing in his own games for that.
But these are different times and Thorne and a few of his teammates from Michigan State were bingeing football on TV last weekend.
"It was definitely weird watching other teams playing while we were sitting in our apartments," said Thorne, a redshirt freshman at Michigan State who starred at quarterback for Naperville Central two years ago. "I haven't watched college football like that on a Saturday since I was in high school. I think everyone was frustrated having to sit there and watch, but I think we were also just trusting what the coaches and the Big Ten was doing."
As of last weekend, the Big Ten was shut down. No football and a postponed season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a decision that came down from the conference office on Aug. 11.
On Wednesday, after weeks of public backlash that included parent rallies outside the conference office in Rosemont, a lawsuit from a group of players from Nebraska against the Big Ten that was ultimately dropped, and a petition to return to play from Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields that received 300,000 signatures, that decision was reversed. A complete about-face.
The Big Ten announced that football and fall sports would be returning on the weekend of October 23 and 24 based on recent advances in testing and medical protocols that have been called a "game-changer," by some university medical personnel.
Daily antigen testing, which will be required for all teams, can identify people who may be contagious due to the virus before they even show symptoms. Enhanced cardiac MRI screening will also be part of the conference protocol.
According to Big Ten officials, the new tests offer more immediate and accurate results.
"The court of public opinion is going to be there regardless," said Robert Jones, chancellor of the University of Illinois, referring to the backlash of the last month. "But what allows me to sleep at night, as a scientist, and as a scholar for several decades now, I've always learned to be driven by the data.
"We made the best decision we could with the information we had back on August 11th. We wouldn't think of reversing that decision based on the information we had at that time. Now, with this new information, it was very, very clear that a lot of those concerns have been mitigated."
Most Big Ten fall athletes, still training over the last month, have been subjected to daily or weekly testing anyway. The additional protocol will be more thorough and frequent.
If a player tests positive, he cannot play for 21 days. If a team has an overall positivity rate of more than 5 percent, the entire team must shut down for seven days.
"We've been told the biggest difference we'll see is that it will be daily testing and it will be a spit test where we spit into a tube everyday and the results will be back in 24 hours," Thorne said. "We were being tested every week and our temperatures were being taken every day and we were recording symptoms if we had any. This is just a little more and I think everyone will be fine with that. I have no concerns at all, and my parents don't either. Everyone just wants to play."
The Big Ten, which is already two weeks of games behind some of the conferences that are playing football, is planning for an eight-week season with a conference championship game in the ninth week.
With the possible exception of the families of players, there will be no fans in the stands at Big Ten games.
Whether a nine-game season would be sufficient for Big Ten teams to be eligible for the College Football Playoff is not yet known since no bench marks have been set for any team, but many insiders believe it would be.
"There is no need to make a decision now," CFP executive director Bill Hancock told ESPN Wednesday. "Just like everything else in 2020, we will wait and evaluate the circumstances and decide."
Meanwhile, playoffs or not, Big Ten coaches and players are simply feeling lucky and excited and anxious to get started.
"This is an exciting day," Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I'm excited to be back on the field with our guys preparing for a game. Obviously, the health and safety of our student-athletes has been the No. 1 priority.
"This morning I was in our weight room and the guys were absolutely ecstatic. They were fired up for the news. Especially for our seniors, after we got postponed about 40 days ago, to have them with the opportunity to play, that's a group I'm really ecstatic for."
Thorne says that there was an off day at Michigan State on Wednesday so he didn't get to see many of his teammates and talk about the news. But he did hear from them on social media as they posted about how excited they were to start playing again. And he heard from plenty of friends and family, too. His phone was blowing up.
"Last night, when people were talking about how this might happen, I got a lot of texts from friends and family and coaches," Thorne said. "Everyone is so excited. It's been something, going through all the ups and downs since the spring. Now, we've got a plan, and we can all kind of breath a little bit now and get ready. It's exciting."