The 3 strategies that led to Big Ten football’s return

The conference's Competition Task Force is leaning on strict protocols, including testing and data, to try to keep its players and staff safe
By: | September 16, 2020
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A little more than a month ago, the Big Ten Conference determined it could not safely have its student-athletes compete this fall and canceled its sports seasons, citing “too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks.”

But on Wednesday, its Council of Presidents and Chancellors reversed field and voted unanimously to let its football programs – perhaps the most vocal faction of all on their campuses – be able to play in 2020 as long as staff, players, coaches and those associated with those teams meet a number of strict guidelines.

Among those “significant medical protocols” outlined by the Big Ten Return to Competition Task Force is daily antigen testing for COVID-19 for all student-athletes, coaches, trainers and other individuals that are on the field for all practices and games.

Leaders on the committee believe that step and others they have enacted not only will help ensure the safety of those associated with individual programs, but also will collectively assist in helping schools across the Big Ten comb through key data as they look at restarting their seasons.

The Big Ten says it plans to resume competition the weekend of Oct. 23-24, a giant leap from where it was on Aug. 11, when it targeted at best a spring 2021 return.

“Everyone associated with the Big Ten should be very proud of the groundbreaking steps that are now being taken to better protect the health and safety of the student-athletes and surrounding communities,” said Dr. Jim Borchers, head team physician at The Ohio State University and co-chair of the Task Force’s medical subcommittee said in a statement. “The data we are going to collect from testing and the cardiac registry will provide major contributions for all 14 Big Ten institutions as they study COVID-19 and attempt to mitigate the spread of the disease among wider communities.”

Of the Power 5 conferences, the Pac-12 (comprised of schools in the West) is the only one left not playing football. Though it is receiving pressure to return – the Pacific Coast wildfires have tempered those talks for the moment – it cited the same concerns initially when it made its decision to cancel fall sports. So what helped the Big Ten change course?

Was it mounting pushback from fans and alumni to restart? Was it seeing other conferences and professional sports leagues such as the NBA and NHL play without much interruption? No, says the Big Ten.

“The new medical protocols and standards put into place by the Task Force were pivotal in the decision to move forward with sports in the conference,” said Morton Schapiro, Northwestern University president and the chair of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors.

Strategies to ensure a safe return

A number of proposed measures ultimately won over those with decision-making power, including daily testing, a robust cardiac screening plan and a thoughtful, data-driven approach to all competition.

The Task Force took highlighted three specific strategies it will put in place to help try to keep athletes on the field:

Each school will have a Chief Infection Officer. That officer will collect data from all testing and positive cases to the Big Ten. A benchmark for continuing to practice and play will then be determined based on the number of cases.

Data will drive outcomes: Though play does not begin until mid-October, testing will begin on Sept. 30. The Big Ten released how it plans to decide the fate of further play for each program, based on team positivity rates and the population rate over a seven-day period.

For example, the benchmarks for team positivity rate (number of positive tests divided by total number of tests administered) will be highlighted by three colors: Green 0-2%, Orange 2-5%, Red >5%

The population positivity rate (number of positive individuals divided by total population at risk) will have slightly higher guidelines: Green 0-3.5%, Orange 3.5-7.5%, Red >7.5%

The bottom line:

  • A team that meets the Green/Green or Green/Orange standard can continue to play.
  • Those in the Orange/Orange or Orange/Red must be more cautious and enact more stringent COVID-19 measures.
  • Those in the Red/Red zone will be prevented from any competition or practices for a seven-day period or until the data improve.

Cardiac testing will be performed: Any student-athlete who tests positive for coronavirus must have a battery of cardiac tests performed to be able to return to play, including labs and biomarkers, an echocardiogram and a cardiac MRI. They then must be cleared by a university-approved cardiologist who handles COVID-19 positive cases for student-athletes. Players who do test positive will be sidelined for a minimum of three weeks.

As part of this plan, each Big Ten university must maintain a registry that documents those cases “to examine the effects of COVID-19 positive athletes … and to answer many of the unknowns regarding the cardiac manifestations.”

As for other fall sports, the Big Ten said it plans to enact similar protocols before those athletic groups can begin. It offered no specific timetable on a return date though it says it plans those other sports soon.

Ultimately, the conference hopes the new measures simply allow its many competitors to get back to competing, bonding with teammates and giving the fans something to cheer about.

“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.”


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor with University Business. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com