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Big Ten scraps nonconference football games due to pandemic

Sep 7, 2019; University Park, PA, USA; A general view of the Big Ten logo prior to the game between the Buffalo Bulls  and the Penn State Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 7, 2019; University Park, PA, USA; A general view of the Big Ten logo prior to the game between the Buffalo Bulls and the Penn State Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports(Matthew OHaren | Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports)
Published: Jul. 9, 2020 at 8:11 PM CDT
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The Big Ten Conference announced Thursday it will not play nonconference games in football and several other sports this fall, the most dramatic move yet by a power conference because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The conference cited medical advice in making its decision and added ominously that the plan would be applied only “if the conference is able to participate in fall sports.”

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said it was “much easier if we’re just working with our Big Ten institutions” in terms of things like scheduling and traveling.

“We may not have sports in the fall,” Warren told the Big Ten Network. “We may not have a college football season in the Big Ten.

“So we just wanted to make sure that this was the next logical step to always rely on our medical experts to keep our student-athletes at the center of all of our decisions and make sure that they are as healthy as they possibly can be from a mental, a physical, an emotional health and wellness standpoint.”

There has been deep unease that the pandemic will deal a blow to fall sports after wiping out hundreds of games, including March Madness, this past spring. More than a dozen schools have reported positive tests for the virus among athletes in the past month but the bad news picked up this week as the Ivy League canceled all fall sports and Stanford announced it was cutting 11 varsity sports.

The Big Ten decision is the biggest yet because Bowl Subdivision football games — more than 40 of them, all moneymakers in different ways — were simply erased. And the move didn’t wash away fears the entire fall season could be in jeopardy.

“I am really concerned, that is the question of the day,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said on a conference call after the announcement. “I was cautiously optimistic. I’m not even there now.”

Besides football, the sports affected include men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball.

“By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions, the conference will have 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,” the Big Ten said.

“The Big Ten decisions are interesting and provide additional information to inform our discussions,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “At this time our medical and scientific advisors have suggested we should move ahead slowly and with constant re-evaluation. We plan to continue to prepare for all available scenarios until we are informed that some are no longer viable.”

Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey said league officials “will continue to meet with regularly with our campus leaders in the coming weeks, guided by the medical advisors, to make the important decisions necessary to determine the best path forward related to the SEC fall sports.”

The marquee nonconference matchups in the Big Ten this season included Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin on Oct. 3 at Lambeau Field, home of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. Other big matchups included Michigan at Washington, Ohio State-Oregon, Penn State-Virginia Tech and Miami-Michigan State.

In the SEC, Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk was asked about the possible rationale for a conference-only schedule.

“Probably, it’s a comfort level of how protocols are being enacted, how testing is done and then keeping it within that family, if you will — your expanded social circle or social pod,” said Sterk, whose Tigers play in the SEC. “You might be able to control things more that way, or feel like you can, anyway versus the unknown of people coming from outside our 11 states.”

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