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Big Ten, Kevin Warren finally put out best plan for 'fluid' 2020 season

Sporting News — (Bill Bender)

For those who chose to listen instead of rendering instant judgment on Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, he put it out there in the simplest of terms Wednesday: The decision to bring back football for the fall season comes with one all-important standard.  

"The biggest thing is we all have to realize that this is a fluid situation," Warren said. "This is also a situation that we need to adapt to in the world we live in today. 

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"I fiercely understand what makes the Big Ten the Big Ten," Warren said later. "We will take a leadership role. We'll put the health and safety of our student-athletes first and foremost, and I’m proud to sit here to say that we did that." 

Fluid. That’s the best word to describe what happens next for a conference that decided to opt back in to a college football season in which there are no perfect answers for those who choose to play on.  

There is no perfect plan for this, even if the Big Ten presented its best effort to get back on the field after 43 days of a public-relations nightmare that unfolded on social media like a bad comedy sketch, right down to the last hot mic from Nebraska president Ted Carter.  

The Big Ten finally presented a unified plan Wednesday. Teams will have daily testing beginning Sept. 30, if not sooner. Players, coaches or trainers who test positive for COVID-19 will have to sit out at least 21 days before returning to action.  

The tight eight-game schedule starts the weekend of Oct. 23 and runs until a quirky championship weekend on Dec. 19 where every team will play a ninth game against the other division based on where they finished in the standings.  

Warren showed confidence in that plan, and that leadership team that consisted of Northwestern president Morton Shapiro and athletic director Jim Phillips, Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez and Ohio State team physician Dr. Jim Borchers, for the first time in a public view — a Zoom call that matches the times — appeared organized and accountable for what will happen next. 

In other words, good plan.   

"I always ask myself, 'Are we better today than we were yesterday? Are we better today than we were 43 days ago?'" Warren asked rheorically. "The answer is unequivocally, 'Yes.' We're better as a conference, and we’re better as a people." 

That's unequivocally debatable, but what isn't? There is no perfect plan for proceeding with the 2020 college football season. Ask Memphis and Arkansas State, programs that are on pause after playing a game on Sept. 5. Ask the ACC, which had to postpone this week's conference game between rivals Virginia and Virginia Tech. The Pac-12 won't play. The SEC hasn't played. College football has games scheduled into the next decade. Now schedules can be changed within 24 hours. 

The risk for one big I-told-you-so is still out there from those who warn about the dangers of playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It's entirely possible this season still gets shut down.

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That will fall on Warren too, even if it’s his job to preside over a decision made by the chancellors and school presidents. Again, the situation is fluid here — just like everything else in the United States right now. Schools, businesses and most other things operate on a change-at-any-moment mindset. The country, however, is not under full quarantine and still learning to operate within the confines of the pandemic. Absent a vaccine, there is no normalcy.  

What is normalcy?  

When will it be safe not wear a mask in public? How do you play football safely in these conditions? Whatever excitement is generated by the return of a fall institution in the Rust Belt must be tempered by the sobering reality of the widespread devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no normalcy in that environment.  

That is the once-in-a lifetime-storm that Warren — who celebrated his one-year anniversary as commissioner-elect Wednesday — inherited. There is no definitive right or wrong answer for how he handled things.  

It's fair to blame Warren for being ill-prepared to defend the Big Ten' stance when it decided to postpone the season on Aug. 11. The lack of communication in the aftermath that led to very public displays of disapproval from Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa, the three schools that voted against postponing the season the first time around made those shots easy to take.   

"From a communication standpoint, what I tried to do personally and what we tried to do collectively, is that when we had things to communicate, that we did communicate," Warren said. "One of the easy things to do is to turn around and say what was poor, what was good."  

The Big Ten, however, worked on a plan in those 40-plus days to produce the best possible plan with the medical data available. The strict protocols might work — like they have for the most part for the NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLB and NFL. For the Big Ten, opinions of the leadership changed when the medical information changed.  

"For me, it wasn't about political pressure, money or lawsuits," Shapiro said. "It was about the unanimous opinion of our experts. It evolved over the course of weeks."  

Oh, the political pressure was there — and it came from President Donald Trump. The money is there, too, the revenue that comes from the television networks that drive big-time college football. The lawsuit from Nebraska’s players also is there. Those were absolutely factors in this decision, and the criticism of Warren now will turn from, "Why aren't you playing?" to "Why did you bow to internal pressure?"  

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Why? At their core, the constituents wanted to play. Of course, Nebraska wanted to play. It’s a driving force in the state’s economy. Of course, Ohio State wanted to play. It has a national championship-caliber team. Of course, the other coaches and student-athletes on the other 12 Big Ten schools want to play if it can be done safely in places where COVID-19 hit harder, such as Michigan State, Rutgers and Maryland.  

"A lot of the criticism that has been displayed over the last couple months, I take it as we're passionate," Warren said. "We're passionate in the Big Ten. We have passionate student-athletes. We have passionate families. We have passionate fans. I take that from a positive standpoint." 

To reiterate: It’s by no means a perfect plan. One outbreak could throw a series of logistical hurdles into a snug eight-game conference schedule with no bye weeks. That’s a flaw that might come back to haunt the Big Ten for postponing the season too soon. But, again, every conference playing football has assumed those risks.  

"We are so much better and so much more prepared today than we were 43 days ago," Warren said.  

We'll find out over the next few months whether that's true. Warren has faced the brunt of that criticism for making a decision in a fluid situation, and now he’ll face criticism for reversing that decision.  

That's the nature of leadership. It’s never deemed perfect, no matter what the plan is.  

At least there's a plan for the Big Ten now, however fluid it might be. Warren deserves some recogniton for that, no matter how it turns out. 

"At some point in time in the future we’ll turn around and look back and we’ll continually be proud of the work we put together and the way we’ve worked together in a collaborative manner in the Big Ten conference to get where we are today," Warren said.