Big Ten football, pandemic and politics collide as U-Wisconsin leader testifies before Congress

Wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette #6 of the Iowa Hawkeyes scores on a kickoff return against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 29, 2019 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)

The Big Ten athletic conference will “keep its season postponed” for fall sports until it can guarantee more rigorous COVID-19 testing and address potential long-term health complications for student athletes, a Wisconsin university official told U.S. senators Tuesday.

The comments from Rebecca Blank, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, came as speculation has swirled all the way up to the Oval Office about the fate of the Big Ten’s football season. President Donald Trump has tried to pressure the conference — the home of several key Midwestern battleground states in the November election — to reschedule the football season this fall.

In Iowa, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley lamented on Twitter Saturday that the season postponement was getting in the way of his favorite team’s season:

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Tuesday afternoon that the Big Ten presidents had voted to restart the football season, perhaps as soon as Oct. 17. And a TV station in Omaha caught a snippet of conversation from the University of Nebraska’s president on a hot microphone indicating that the Big Ten would announce the return of football tonight.

Blank declined to say whether the Big Ten’s university presidents would be voting on whether to restart play, as many media reports have suggested. But she said a “postponed” season could be in the works if the schools can answer questions about testing and potential heart damage for players.

“Our concern is that we do this according to the best science and the best medical advice possible,” she said at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on compensation for student athletes.

“When such a decision is made, your first question should be: What’s changed?” Blank told U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat. 

The president has tried to goad the Big Ten into resuming its football season, and many of the conference’s football players and coaches have publicly called for a quick restart as well. Earlier this month, Trump said negotiations were “on the one-yard line” in connection with a resumption of Big Ten play.

But that would take a dramatic reversal from the Big Ten’s 11-3 vote in August to postpone the season, at a time when COVID-19 is ravaging college campuses. The Big Ten is made up of the universities of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin, as well as Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Rutgers.

Kaine noted that Virginia Tech in his home state has had to postpone both of its first two football games because of coronavirus outbreaks. Meanwhile, hundreds of students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison are being quarantined in their dorms to try to stem a larger outbreak on the campus.

Several senators at the hearing voiced concern about colleges that are going ahead with athletic competitions without sufficient protections for student athletes.

“The health and safety of college athletes and their communities must determine when and how college sports continue during this pandemic,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat. 

Schools shouldn’t just be focused on the immediate prospect of infection, but also on how they will take care of athletes who contract COVID-19 if they develop long-term effects like myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, she said.

Blank said the University of Wisconsin often covers the medical costs of athletes who have injuries for several years after their college career is over. “Our expectation is that if we have someone who has serious COVID-related issues that they contract while they are playing, that we would cover them,” she said. 

Sen. Jacky Rosen, a Nevada Democrat, said she found it “particularly alarming” that half of all of the university football teams in the Power Five conferences would not tell ESPN how many of their athletes tested positive for COVID-19. A third of those schools also declined to share what their protocols were for handling athletes who tested positive.

The National Athletic Trainers Association, meanwhile, released a survey this week that showed that half of all college athletes and staff are complying with their own protocols for handling the spread of COVID-19. 

“No one is talking about anything that is going to fundamentally change that,” Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association, a group that is pushing for compensation of student athletes, told the senators. 

He said there needs to be a uniform standard nationally for how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in college sports, as well as strict enforcement of those protocols. But there is “nothing close to that” right now. 

The NCAA is not punishing programs that violate their standards, and college conferences like the Big Ten are not in a good position to enforce those rules, either, he said. When a group of student athletes tried to push Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott to adopt rigorous testing protocols, they were rebuffed, Huma noted.

“They’re ill-equipped and pretty much unwilling to do what’s right in terms of COVID and other health issues,” Huma said.  

Should college athletes be paid?

The senators’ discussion about safety protocols for athletes during the coronavirus outbreak came as Congress wrestles with how to respond to state laws that would let college athletes collect money from companies for their use of the athletes’ name, image and likeness. 

California, Colorado, Florida and Nebraska have already passed laws protecting the rights of athletes to collect that money, prompting the NCAA to appeal to Congress to pass a uniform law for the entire country. Similar bipartisan legislation made it through an Iowa Senate committee this year, but did not advance to the floor.

Blank, the Wisconsin chancellor, said Congress should pass a law to override those state laws and allow the NCAA to establish national rules instead. She said the law should exempt the NCAA from antitrust laws so it could, for example, prohibit payments from gambling companies to athletes. 

And Blank said the payments should be transparent, so that regulators can make sure they are for genuine services, “not a pretext for sending money under the table.”

But Huma, from the players association, said the NCAA “is asking Congress to support this unjust system and trample the rights of states that are adopting laws to protect their college athletes.”

If there was any doubt that colleges could comply with a variety of state laws, he said, their reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown otherwise. 

“NCAA sports has demonstrated an ability to comply with an ever-changing array of COVID orders issued by governors and counties to return players to play in a pandemic,” he said. “It can surely comply with any mild differences in state laws that grant college athletes economic freedoms.”