The past few weeks have been a disaster for the Big Ten.
With its quick decision to cancel the fall sports season Aug. 11 and an overwhelming lack of transparency in the cancelation process, the conference and commissioner Kevin Warren have taken fair criticism from fans, student-athletes and parents of fall sports athletes. And the voices of those critics might have an impact on the future of Big Ten programs.
Among the harshest critics in the Big Ten community have been the parents of student-athletes, who have called out the conference every step of the way since the cancelation. They have held protests, written letters and have appeared on national TV shows to call out the conference’s mishandling of the situation.
The discontent with the conference has not ended there; Big Ten players have risen to the occasion to challenge the conference’s decision. Ohio State junior quarterback Justin Fields created a petition against the Big Ten’s decision on Aug. 16, and it has now eclipsed 300,000 signees.
On Aug. 19, the Big Ten released a vague explanation of the cancelation that pointed to the uncertain situation of the virus as the main factor for cancelation.
“At the core of our decision was the knowledge that there was too much medical uncertainty and too many unknown health risks regarding SARS-CoV-2 infection and its impact on our student-athletes,” the release stated.
Of course, the health and safety of the players is paramount in this process, and the Big Ten has done a fine job keeping players safe. However, at least at Ohio State, players and their parents have expressed positive feelings toward the way safety protocols were carried out at their facilities.
“We believe that the protocols put in place by Ohio State athletics have provided an extremely safe environment for our players to prepare for the season,” an Aug. 15 Football Parent Association of Ohio State letter to Warren states. “Due to safety protocols put in place, our students are safer in the program than the other students who are already returning to campus.”
Although this decision fell to university presidents and Big Ten officials, the fact that there was seemingly little correspondence between the student-athletes and decision makers is quite alarming.
Eight Nebraska football players are taking direct action, filing a lawsuit against the conference Thursday on the grounds that the conference did not follow the correct process. The lawsuit called for the Lancaster County Court in Nebraska to invalidate the Big Ten’s decision to cancel the season.
“Our Clients want to know whether there was a vote and the details of any vote, and whether the Big Ten followed its own rules in reaching its decision,” the lawsuit reads.
With the Big 12, Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coastal Conference unified and sticking to playing at this point, the Big Ten is looking like a disjointed mess.
The ACC has rallied around Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease expert at Duke University, who said in an Aug. 11 interview with Sports Business Daily that doctors have learned enough about the virus in the past six months to manage the risk of playing a season this fall, directly contradicting Warren and the Big Ten’s stance.
The SEC continues to test its student-athletes twice a week and has strict masking guidelines in place. Commissioner Greg Sankey said in an Aug. 11 appearance on “The Dan Patrick Show” that the conference’s medical advisory group has given the SEC the green light to play. However, if that sentiment changes, Sankey said that the conference would be prepared to stop operations immediately.
This once again contradicts Warren’s stance, as well as shows that the SEC is willing to try to play games — unlike the Big Ten.
Ohio State parents have planned two protests, one in front of Big Ten headquarters in Rosemont, Illinois, and another in front of Ohio Stadium this upcoming Saturday. On Aug. 20, Nebraska parents issued an ultimatum to the conference to either release documents relating to the cancelation by Aug. 24 or face a lawsuit; the conference did not release any documents before the deadline.
The most recent act of defiance from parents came from an Aug. 26 letter written by 11 of the 14 Big Ten football parent groups. The letter called for the Big Ten to release all documents, recordings and other materials relating to the cancelation along with the creation of a parents forum and increased transparency with the conference’s Return to Play task force.
“We completely understand that this pandemic is unprecedented and requires careful consideration,” the letter states. “That said, it’s extremely frustrating that the Big Ten has failed to properly communicate in a transparent manner.”
With a clear lack of transparency between the conference and its student-athletes and their parents, a chasm is being created between the groups.
This chasm could leave dire consequences for the future of the Big Ten.
The Big Ten’s unwillingness to attempt to play and their closed-door mentality may rub off the wrong way on future prospective student-athletes. The optics of the Big Ten have taken a huge hit, and they now come off as a conference that does not listen to the input of its most important members: the student-athletes.
These new views on the Big Ten may give conferences such as the Big 12, SEC and ACC a leg up in recruiting, as they have shown to fight for the players’ right to play, something the Big Ten has not done.
Although the Big Ten’s decision has already been made, it still has time to rectify some of its mistakes, and it all starts with increasing its transparency among the student-athlete population and its office.