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Mixed signals, confusing messages from Big Ten aren’t helping situation

Kevin Warren-Big Ten-Big Ten conference
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren is in a tough spot, but he needs to be a leader. (Thomas J. Russo/Imagn)

Ohio State Football

Mixed signals, confusing messages from Big Ten aren’t helping situation

COLUMBUS — The league that once thought so highly of itself that it named its divisions Legends and Leaders is finding new ways to embarrass itself with its messaging.

More often than not, the Big Ten has actually proven itself to be a worthy example for conferences around the country. But right now it’s only making matters worse with conflicting reports, mixed signals and a potentially bizarre directive from its new commissioner on Sunday night.

It obviously can’t be overlooked that all of this is happening in an unprecedented situation with no playbook for handling a global pandemic. Nothing about making a decision about whether to play or not is easy, and these are brutally tough conversations that will impact hundreds of players, thousands of businesses in local communities and hundreds of millions of dollars.

But if the league is prepared to pull the plug as it has consistently stressed that it was prepared to do if the time came, it’s giving itself a black eye in the process.

According to trusted national reporter Pete Thamel, Warren directed Big Ten teams to “go light” in practice on Monday, hours after it was becoming increasingly clear that conference presidents have a voting majority in favor of cancellation. Lettermen Row sources have confirmed that’s the most likely outcome at this point, and if that’s the case, sending the Buckeyes out to put up with more COVID-19 testing and another training-camp practice borders on cruelty.

Ohio State-Jerron Cage-Ohio State football-Buckeyes

Ohio State and Jerron Cage were expected to practice again on Monday. (Courtesy/Ohio State Dept. of Athletics)

The fact that it comes less than a week after releasing a schedule for the season only makes it worse. That it comes roughly a month after it spoke so glowingly of its decision to go to a conference-only slate that was going to give it built-in options to make up postponements due to potential positive cases on Big Ten rosters only adds to the confusion. Add in the fact that some in the Big Ten are now floating the idea of playing a spring schedule and it gets even more maddening since that idea is essentially untenable and would fly in the face of safety concerns by trying to pack two seasons into one calendar year.

What happened to flexibility and a willingness to adjust in order to give players a chance to play this fall?

What kind of attempt is the conference actually making in the face of overwhelming evidence that teams like the Buckeyes desperately want the opportunity to play while restaurants and bars remain open and campuses are set to welcome back the rest of the student population? It’s obvious there is risk that comes with playing a contact sport, and football is the most physically demanding of them all. But when it comes to COVID-19, there’s also going to be a threat in classrooms — and right now the Woody Hayes Athletic Center is almost certainly the safest place the Buckeyes could be.

Given the historic challenges the leadership group is facing, maybe it’s not totally fair to criticize the effort. Assuming the presidents are genuinely operating in what they view as the best interests of the university, and not perhaps the growing fear that players are organizing and threatening their hallowed ideas of amateurism, then it’s understandable why cancellation this fall is on the table.

If that decision has already been made, though, the Big Ten did wrong by sending players out for practice on Monday morning. And it’s hard to argue that it did everything it could to actually give them a real shot at the season they undeniably want.

Austin Ward

Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.