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The Big Ten Conference Responds to COVID-19 in a Big Way

By Jonathan Hamil

Michigan State University football game before (left) and during (right) COVID-19.

On September 16th, the organizers of the Big Ten Football Conference voted unanimously to begin the 2020 football season, after accepting a stringent medical protocol intended to keep student-athletes, coaches, trainers, and other staff safe throughout the season.

Initially, the Council had voted in August and had decided to postpone the 2020 football season altogether out of an abundance of caution for the player’s and community’s safety. The inability to work out some form of a season during the pandemic, however, created an uproar throughout the country, particularly because of its economic impact and due to the implications not playing would have on the current player’s future NFL careers. President Trump even called the Big Ten Commissioner on behalf of the American people, to negotiate how the conference could return to play this Fall.

Two primary concerns initially stalled the 2020 season:

1. The potential for myocarditis, a condition of heart inflammation.

2. The ability to effectively contact trace to limit spread within, or to other institutions, and their surrounding communities.

To date, myocarditis remains a concern for all athletes who contract COVID-19. Myocarditis, if left unchecked, can develop into more severe heart problems, even sudden death. For Big Ten medical staffs, the health and safety of the athletes is a top concern but the added health risks of COVID-19 may be further amplified by the recent death of Jordan McNair at the University of Maryland during a football team workout.

If players could be fully isolated from the risks of contracting COVID-19 similar to the NBA’s bubble format which had zero confirmed cases, the decision to play could be substantially easier. However, within college communities, the number of cases continue to rise prompting quarantine and self-isolation orders by public health departments. Big Ten medical staffs cannot guarantee their players will be isolated from cases within college communities. Further, medicals staffs cannot guarantee teams would not spread the virus to another team during competition.

As part of the Big Ten’s plans to keep student-athletics safe during this season, all athletes, with or without history of COVID-19 are required to wear a mask to comply with prevention and protection practices. Additionally, all practices and competitions will be subject to a rolling seven-day average team positivity rate and a population positivity rate.

These rolling averages will be evaluated by a Chief Infection Officer appointed to each campus. Players, coaches, and trainers will all receive daily antigen testing which will be required to participate in competition and practice. Anybody who tests positive for COVID-19 from the antigen test will undergo a PCR test to confirm results. If a player is confirmed positive, they will be entered into a cardiac registry and suspended from team activities for 21 days following the diagnosis. To be cleared by a designated cardiologist, players will be thoroughly evaluated with a series of cardiac tests including labs and biomarkers, ECG, echocardiogram, and a cardiac MRI.

Although the return of Big Ten Football is worth celebrating as fans and players will both enjoy the coming competition this fall, there are precedents set by this organization that should be implemented nationally, and speak to the lack of national response to this pandemic. The New England Journal of Medicine characterized the federal response as laconic, citing misleading statements from federal officials, and pressures from a deteriorating stock market as factors for the lack of response.

Like the Big Ten, the US faces the economic pressures of staying open. However, a long-term, full-scale shut down of the country would be financially crippling to both families and businesses. As the Big Ten has demonstrated, a total shut down is not necessary. By relying on the advice of scientific experts and by incorporating a regular testing protocol for all parties involved, the window to infect other individuals after contracting the virus has been substantially tightened. Following these protocols allows businesses, like the Big Ten Conference football teams, to resume by meeting the conditional requirements of the new-normal set by COVID-19.

Financially, there are immense benefits to having a 2020 football season.

In 2019, USA Today reported the Big Ten Conference, across all sports, produced over $780 million in revenue for their institutions. Outside of direct revenue to the sports programs themselves, Nancy Bird, the director of the Iowa City Downtown District, reports that the University of Iowa’s Hawkeye football program alone brings $120 million to the community annually. Beyond attending the game, visitors are revenue drivers for stores, restaurants, bars, and hotels. By working out some semblance of a season, the Big Ten relieves not only their institution’s budgets, but those of college-town businesses too.

As the season begins, the Big Ten will be literally capitalizing on their ability to act. A series of standards based on expert recommendations were implemented across the conference that, although not perfect, should be significant enough to carry the conference throughout the season and into a January post-season. The federal government should take note. Determine what the standards are, commit to shutting things down as needed, and test regularly to contain the outbreaks. Action is not going to cripple this economy… inaction will.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan State Athletic Department, its coaches, staff, or players.

Photo Credits:

Crowded MSU Stadium: Jonathan Hamil

Empty MSU Stadium: MSU Football Media Department

JONATHAN HAMIL is a first-year PhD student in the Department of Kinesiology studying the use of wearable technology within sport under the direction of Dr. Karin Pfeiffer. Jonathan is passionate about improving athlete wellbeing and performance through the application scientific research and principles. Jonathan is currently serving as a graduate sports scientist within MSU’s athletic department.

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