Jul 18, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby speaks to the media during the Big 12 Media Days at Omni Dallas Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Endless questions. Not as many fully-formed answers. But after ongoing consultations with doctors and scientists, the Big 12 plans to move forward with fall football, Bob Bowlsby, the league’s commissioner, said Wednesday in an hour-long conference call with the media.
“Frankly, we found that what we thought was golden 60 days ago is garbage today,” Bowlsby said. “It’s an ever-evolving environment and we will find ourselves with bumpy spots during the fall. There isn’t any doubt about that, but I think we’re very well prepared to deal with those things, so I feel good about the decision going forward. I believe our board feels good about it and I feel, most importantly, we have some clarity for our coaches and our student-athletes. There’s a difference between clarity and certainty. I don’t think we have certainty in this environment but we have been able to get some clarity.”
The decision — reached by the 10 member institutions’ presidents — comes one day after the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced that the respective leagues will shift fall championships to next spring.
Many expected those decisions would snuff out hopes for major college football to be played at all in the fall, but the Big 12 reached a different conclusion. It’s also looking increasingly likely the ACC and SEC along with a handful of other non-Power 5 conferences will follow suit and suit up this fall, as well.
“We’ve spent a lot of time with the other conference commissioners and I think there was some presumption that what that meant was we were all gonna be in lockstep,” Bowlsby said. “In the end, I think we all have to do what is best for our individual conferences and we aren’t all similarly situated. We have, in the case of the Pac-12, they’ve got a really tough situation in Southern California and two of their flagship schools there and San Francisco’s been hot spot off and on. I just think each league has to make its own decision. When they made the decision that they made, certainly it causes us to look at the things they indicated were drivers for them and we have to make our own assessments on those same criteria. What we have heard from our experts is that some of the ramifications of the virus can be mitigated and can be properly managed. As long as that continues to be the case, they believe that we can safely conduct competition and safely conduct practice. If we get to the place where it’s their considered opinion that we no longer can do that, then we will be able to pivot very quickly to another course.”
Bowlsby said a panel of doctors and scientists, including some from the Mayo Clinic and the University of Kansas — as well as Dr. Cameron Wolfe of Duke University — has been providing insights to help the conference reach its decisions every step of the way.
“We feel like we’re fully as well prepared as we can be at this time to move forward,” Bowlsby said. “We plan to do what we have always done — and we’ve been doing it since April — and that is on the advice of doctors, moving forward slowly. Constantly reevaluating what we’re doing. Making small corrections. And looking for challenges that we, in one way or another, can’t meet. So we have been able to put one foot forward and follow it with another and we’ve gotten to this point.”
Wolfe, who is the chairman of the ACC’s medical advisory team, told Sports Business Daily Tuesday that be believes football can be safely played this fall.
“We believe we can mitigate it down to a level that makes everyone safe,” Wolfe told Sports Business Daily in an exclusive interview. “Can we safely have two teams meet on the field? I would say yes. Will it be tough? Yes. Will it be expensive and hard and lots of work? For sure. But I do believe you can sufficiently mitigate the risk of bringing COVID onto the football field or into the training room at a level that’s no different than living as a student on campus.”
The Big 12 announced earlier Wednesday an array of medical protocols that will apply uniformly to its member institutions.
These include “enhanced COVID-19 testing that includes three tests per week” in sports such as football, volleyball and soccer. The league’s “return to play” protocols will require any student-athlete who tests positive to undergo an EKG, troponin blood test, echocardiogram and cardiac MRI. Any possible non-conference foes for Big 12 teams must strictly adhere to the same protocols.
“If anybody is around that tells you they can accurately forecast what’s going to happen with the virus, they’re delusional,” Bowlsby said. “Even the best scientific minds are unable to forecast with precision. But having acknowledged that, I feel good about where we are simply because we have good practices in place. And I think the other thing is, during the preseason camp, is about as close to a bubble as you’re gonna get with college students.”
Bowlsby acknowledged that once all students are on campus and at least a semblance of normal college life returns challenges will inevitably multiply.
He added it’s vital — but difficult — for student-athletes to avoid large gatherings and continue to follow all safety protocols, particularly once they’re outside the program’s de facto “bubble.”
“A lot of the success of teams during the season going forward and a lot of how many potholes we fall into has to do with whether or not young people can discipline themselves to not go to parties where there are hundreds of kids in close contact and not be in crowded restaurants and the like,” Bowlsby said. “You can’t stop living your life, but you also have to be smart about putting yourself in risky situations.”
In terms of eligibility, Bowlsby said the Big 12’s “advocacy is going to be for just as liberal a treatment of eligibility issues as is possible. The NCAA Council is going to deal with it (later) Wednesday and then again next week and make a recommendation to the (NCAA) Board of Directors and I expect we will get some clarity.”
Bowlsby also said the league met with at least two student-athlete representatives from each school and that wide-ranging dialogue will continue as the preseason and, hopefully, season progresses.
“All of our schools are completely committed to retaining financial add for anybody that wants to opt-out so that they can continue to go to school,” Bowlsby added. “The safety, eligibility and financial aid are the three areas where student-athletes really want some questions answered and we’re making good progress to do that and I think they’re gonna have those answers well before the season starts.”
Shifting gears, in case you were wondering, Bowlsby was asked if Nebraska, which has expressed interest in playing this fall despite the Big Ten’s decision to move fall championships to the spring, had reached out to the Big 12.
“They have not,” Bowlsby said.
Going deeper, Bowlsby was asked if the league would consider adding “temporary members.”
“It’s not in any of our plans at this present time,” he said.
All of which — beyond the myriad and thorny health concerns — muddies the possible picture for a true champion to emerge for college football in general.
As long as the ACC and SEC remain on a path to play this fall, the Big 12 will enjoy plenty of Power 5 conference company to duel with, even with the Big Ten and Pac-12 choosing to shift their seasons to the spring.
But a true champion in the fall — or even a full College Football Playoff, or bowl game slate? It’s hard to quantify what that would even be or entail if more than 50 FBS teams won’t be competing until the spring.
Bowlsby offered a caveat to that, as well.
“Well, maybe playing in the spring,” Bowlsby said. “I don’t know. We have a CFP call next week and we’ll obviously talk about this, but it’s gonna be a while into the season before all of that’s resolved. We just are gonna have to wait and see. There probably isn’t any obvious reason why it wouldn’t work to try to continue to try to play a postseason, but you’re also looking at a December-January time frame that’s right in the heart of the virus season, so I just think it’s too early. We’re gonna have to be patient and wait and see what happens before we can answer those questions.”
Bowlsby was then asked about the possibility of crowning two champions — one in the fall, one in the spring? That, like everything else stemming from COVID-19 concerns, seems shrouded in uncertainty, too.
“I think you’d ask the logical question whether either one of them is actually a champion,” Bowlsby said. “It’s a good question, but it’s unanswered at this point.”
The Big 12 is still looking at possible thresholds of overall infection that would force a team or teams to forfeit a game or spate of games. He added that first, the league would try to find a way to reschedule, especially since there may be three bye weeks worked into the conference-only schedule slated to start Sept. 26.
Bowlsby added there are so many possible variables that finding a uniform one-size-fits-all answer to what would bar a team from competing for any given amount of time very difficult.
“Institutionally, it may be decided by a number, but it also may be decided by other factors,” Bowlsby said. “if all your quarterbacks live together and they’re in the same conference room and they all of a sudden are infected, it’s hard to go forward. I think it will also be dependent upon whether the game can be rescheduled. Some of them can be rescheduled. Some of them, as we get later in the season, there won’t be any opportunity for that, so it’s just another one of those decisions that we’ll have to be making in real-time.”
As for any rules for the number of fans — if any — allowed in league stadiums?
Bowlsby said those decisions will be made locally based on public health guidelines.
“I think we all agree that we’re not gonna have full stadiums,” Bowlsby said. “You think about the challenges of disinfecting a weight room or a training room or a locker room, you can imagine the challenges of disinfecting an entire stadium and then socially distancing. If you socially distanced in the restroom line and put six feet between you and everybody else you’d have a restroom line that was a mile and a half long. The practicality of it in today’s environment is certainly one component. The other component is I think it’s yet unknown what the psychology of public assembly will be. Will people go back and sit cheek by jowl with people they don’t know when there’s not a vaccine in place. I think that’s a really good question that we’re gonna have to spend some time on, but I don’t think we’re gonna be anywhere near capacity crowds and it’s going to vary by locale.”
So many questions. Not enough answers as of yet. But enough has emerged to at least ensure we’ll have football — as of now. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. After all, well-plotted plans that seemed “golden” 60 days ago are now, as Bowlsby said, “garbage.”
Expect the situation to remain fluid. For now, at least, football forms a tantalizingly bright spot on an otherwise cloud-strewn horizon. The Big 12’s decision will be both celebrated and criticized. Either way, Bowlsby’s convinced it’s the best choice to make based on the guidance from the panel of experts the league has assembled to devise the best path forward.
“For the most part, I have better information and my presidents have better information than most of our friends in the fourth estate,” Bowlsby said. “So, reasonable people can disagree on it and the Pac-12 and the Big Ten are seeing much of the same information that we’re seeing, but our board believes in our scientists and has come to a conclusion that’s different and so have the leadership of the SEC and the ACC… In any group of people, you end up with some that have a conservative nature and some that have a more aggressive nature. I would say our league has a combination and yet they’ve worked together very well and the AD’s have worked together very well. We believe that the people advising us have our best interests at heart and we’re going to follow their instructions explicitly.”