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The Big Ten’s credibility is being torn apart from the inside out, and it only has itself to blame

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Didn’t you used to be the Big Ten, all class and formality? Bo and Woody may have flipped now and then, but the league was mostly 3 yards and a cloud of decorum. Legends and Leaders may have flopped as division names, but they endured as the foundations of a 124-year-old league.

Yeah, yeah. The Big Ten (and its yappy parents) needs football. But first, the conference needs to decide what it wants.

Seventeen days after announcing it would attempt to play in spring 2021 — a decision that came 6 days after the Big Ten released its fall 2020 schedule — the league is now at least considering a Thanksgiving-week start. That is one of a number of options that also include a January 2021 start.

Pick a lane, Big Ten.

The increasing rift within the league is obvious. Big Ten coaches joined on a conference call to discuss schedule options. League presidents, who voted overwhelmingly not to play this fall, may be hearing questions from the trustees who employ them.

Worse, a lot of this rift has become public.

We are told there will be no decisions for 7-10 days while the Big Ten continues to figure itself out. Isn’t that a treat? Quiet is good from a conference that can’t keep from making the wrong kind of noise lately.

The first question: What changed between Aug. 11 and now? Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren has been criticized for his lack of transparency in making the no-fall-football announcement on that date. Then, when he did issue “An Open Letter To The Big Ten Community” on Aug. 19, Warren wrote the decision to postpone the fall season “will not be revisited.”

That was all but proved false Friday when sources confirmed to CBS Sports what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported: A bunch of folks in the league had at least reconsidered playing in the fall.

That is not good when Warren had drawn his line in the sand. That line has at least been blurred, if not erased entirely.

Nothing may come of it … or the league may emerge in the next two weeks with a new, detailed plan. One Big Ten source said a fall 2020 start may hinge on a medical “miracle” surrounding COVID-19 (better testing and contact tracing).

Big Ten sources increasingly indicate the league’s focus is on developing the best spring 2021 schedule possible. Something that would mitigate the problem of playing two seasons in a calendar year. Something that would end before the NFL Draft.

Either way, it shows a continued lack of unity within the Big Ten.

Despite that overwhelming presidential vote not to play, it is known that Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio State either supported a fall season or preferred to wait a bit longer to make a decision.

In some form, coaches and officials at those three schools are not willing to let this go. They see recruits — and by extension, future NFL Draft picks — looking elsewhere because the spring football decision.

If the Big Ten follows through with not playing in the fall, it’s reasonable to assume Ohio State star quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Justin Fields has played his last snap.

Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons is one of more than 50 Power Five players who have already opted out of the season. Parsons is choosing to avoid potential exposure to COVID-19 and focus on NFL Draft preparation. He and others do not have to deal with the uncertainty of if and when college football will start up again.

They see the College Football Playoff committed to those leagues playing in the fall.

Of course, there is the money. Early on, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith estimated his athletic department would lose $50 million playing a season without fans.

The fact that the league has wavered, publicly, reflects how the Big Ten’s sterling reputation is slipping.

Part of this could have been solved in a timely Zoom call between Warren and the media. That would have at least engaged a Big Ten public so desperately seeking a detailed explanation.

All of it now reflects diverse and competing factions.

There may not be a clear solution. The presidents have the power to fire Warren. There is no evidence they are considering such a move. Meanwhile, the coaches and ADs who prefer fall football can continue to peck at his decision making. 

Messaging is also an issue. For now, the Big Ten has lost control of the narrative. Seldom, if ever, has the league been a public pinata ripe for criticism.

Former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany knew the result of crucial votes before they were taken. He ruled with a velvet hammer. These days, the Big Ten toolbox looks empty.

There seems to be a lack of a crisis management plan and issues with strategic communications. Below the surface, a return to play task force continues to study medical, scheduling and broadcast issues going forward.

Elsewhere, it’s a spit show. Attorney Tom Mars has not only submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to 13 of the 14 Big Ten schools, he is sharing schools’ replies publicly on Twitter. (Northwestern, a private university, is not subject to such requests.)

Concerns over litigation have to be real.

As frivolous as a lawsuit by Nebraska players looks initially, damage could be inflicted. The Big Ten could be compelled to release documents that actually reveal how and why the league decided to postponed the season.

And that’s not to mention how the issue has been politicized since the start.

If the Big Ten changes its mind, in some way, it will be seen as caving to pressure.

Either way, there is this uncomfortable possibility: The Big Ten might be playing regular-season games the same week Alabama meets Clemson in the CFP National Championship.

All of it indicates a new stratification among the Power Five. For now, the ACC, Big 12, SEC — and even the Pac-12 — have the upper hand.

  • SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has been transparent and progressive in releasing medical updates and advancing testing protocols. If the league eventually has to postpone the season, don’t blame Sankey or his conference. They will have done everything medically and ethically possible to play.
  • The stratification may hinge on the Big 12 finding its own expert to lessen the concern over myocarditis. Dr. Michael Ackerman of the Mayo Clinic convinced Big 12 leaders that heart inflammation as a result of COVID-19 was not necessarily a threat. Meanwhile, myocarditis was a key factor in the Big Ten and Pac-12 postponing their fall season. 
  • The ACC’s decision to play gives us a final season of Trevor Lawrence. We might just get it, too. On Friday, the ACC became the second Power Five conference to announce it is testing three times a week during game week. CBS Sports reported this week that the Big 12 will make a similar announcement. 
  • For a conference everyone loves to rip, the Pac-12 has been a bastion of stability since making its decision. Silent coaches, no parent revolts, no talk of going back on its decision. Everybody is on the same page. The Pac-12 remains the only league to release a detailed document as to why it postponed the season. If it wasn’t for laying off 88 of its Pac-12 Network employees, this summer might have been Larry Scott’s shining moment.

Warren has to mend fences — at least with the other Power Five commissioners. It has been widely reported that the July 9 decision to go with a conference-only schedule surprised Warren’s peers.

They were further confused by the season postponement six days after the Big Ten’s schedule release.

Given all that, before asking what has changed for the Big Ten since, maybe the question going forward is this: Why we should believe the answer? 



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