COLUMBUS — The devastating verdict came down, and Ohio State accepted it like everybody else in the Big Ten.
But did that really have to be the end of the national-title dreams for the Buckeyes? Was there really no other option for Ohio State? Have all paths to at least trying to play games this season truly been exhausted?
Let’s make a couple things clear right off the bat: I’m not an expert in contracts, not a skilled negotiator of big-money deals and haven’t ever been faced with multimillion-dollar decisions. The Big Ten and the member institutions were given an incredibly difficult task in trying to decide what to do with the football season in the midst of a global pandemic, and it truly can’t be faulted for electing to err on the side of caution when there are unknown health risks.
But this last week has also laid unmistakably bare that not every program in the league is on level footing. There was also absolutely not unanimous agreement about pulling the plug on Tuesday — or, as multiple sources confirmed to Lettermen Row, Sunday night before allowing teams to practice for two more days. Ohio State and Nebraska made that unmistakably clear on Monday when both Ryan Day and Scott Frost were making public statements about pursuing games anywhere they could find them, and Michigan and Penn State followed suit with letters of their own.
All four of those programs and some less-vocal schools like Iowa believe in the testing, medical support and protocols that were put in place at great expense over the last two months to give their student-athletes a shot at playing the game they love. It doesn’t seem that unreasonable to at least have given them a shot to test them out. And it’s at that point where the conversation got heated and the debate seemed to shift away from COVID-19 and straight to television contracts, conference membership — and money.
Asked specifically about Nebraska following through with its intention to play no matter what the league decided, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren responded with an unmistakable threat in an interview with Pete Thamel when asked if the Huskers could play.
“No,” Warren told Yahoo Sports. “Not and be a member of the Big Ten Conference.”
The implication was that Nebraska’s $50 million would be snatched away and shared with the rest of the league. But are FOX and ESPN actually going to be paying for games that don’t happen? If the team that had tried to take a stand was Ohio State and not a newcomer like Nebraska which has consistently struggled since joining the league, would Warren have taken such a hard line?
Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State have all the leverage. Those powerhouse programs provide the prestige that helps fund the hapless squad at Rutgers, allows Indiana to upgrade its facilities and gives Northwestern a national athletic platform. The Big Ten is famous for the way it works in lockstep and shares it revenue, but that simply wouldn’t exist at this level without the Buckeyes as the annual national-title-contending, money-making flagship.
“Not leaving — that’s not realistic,” Smith said after leaving the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on Tuesday “We’ve been a member of the Big Ten for a long time, we share the same values as our member institutions. We all know our history and tradition, I don’t need to give you that speech. We’re in the Big Ten, we’re not looking to play someone else outside of our conference, we have a contract that we are obligated to with our television partners, so that’s not happening.
Spoiler: The spring remains littered with complications that don’t make it practical, and it’s almost certainly not going to work.
So, what if Ryan Day kept on swinging for his team now, convincing athletic director Gene Smith and president-elect Kristina Johnson to apply a bit of pressure on those contracts? Again, without knowing all of the details tied up in the legal documents, is there truly no room for negotiation in these unprecedented times? Could something like force majeure work to give teams an option to at least try to schedule games? Would Warren really kick the Buckeyes out of the Big Ten if they asked for a one-year break?
What would the Big Ten even be without Ohio State and Michigan?
Those are the questions that have raced through the minds of coaches on the ground who are only trying to exhaust every avenue to give their players an opportunity. And multiple Big Ten staff members are still working to keep the battle alive.
“We gave up too easily,” one conference assistant not authorized to speak publicly said. “Why? Why not pursue every option? Do we owe it to the Big Ten or do we owe it to the players?”
The players never signed a television contract with the league, by the way, and the truth is Ohio State playing any games this season would obviously have financial benefits for the rest of the Big Ten.
This is all moot if the SEC, ACC and Big 12 wind up cancelling the fall schedules, and the contact-tracing protocols in place do make it unlikely that a full season could be played.
But the top programs in the Big Ten weren’t even asking to play this weekend, they just wanted a delay and a chance to do whatever they could to safely play football.
If contracts are the final hurdle, it’s time to rip them up.