by Wendell Barnhouse

According to Wikipedia, the term “political football” is “a topic or issue that is seized on by opposing political parties or factions and made a more political issue than it might initially seem to be.”

And in this hellscape year where every day brings another “what the fck?” head shaker, football has become political. In particular, the issue is college football and the Big Ten Conference. The Big Ten, which thanks to expansion has 14 schools and stretches from Nebraska to New Jersey, thinks of itself as the thought leader in college athletics. Jim Delany, its recently retired commissioner, was perhaps the best to ever do the job. So, when most sports decided to soldier on through a pandemic, the Big Ten opted for safety. In mid-August, its presidents decided to punt the fall season. So did the Pac-12, also citing the health and safety issues. The other three Power Five leagues – the Big 12, Atlantic Coast and Southeastern – decided that King Football (and its desperately needed money from TV contracts) would continue to rule. That courageous (?) choice made the Big Ten presidents look like … suckers and losers. On Sept. 1, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren accepted a phone call from President Donald Trump (or, as I like to call him, Agolf Shtler). The call was apparently set up by Clay Travis, a FOX radio host. He’s a Rush Limbaugh wannabe who has consistently followed and repeated the propaganda pumped by FAUX News downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19. (This writer has been blocked on Twitter by Travis, a proud accomplishment for moi.) Tuesday, bowing to pressure and claiming that COVID testing improvements have changed the opinions of their medical advisers, the Big Ten’s leaders reversed course and decided to play an abbreviated schedule starting in late October. The Pac-12, which had announced suspending all sports until Jan. 1, also is gearing up to play a shortened football schedule this fall. USA Today reported a senior White House official claimed during a background interview Wednesday, “That call was probably the most pivotal call in Big Ten football this year.” (We eagerly await a Jim Harbaugh play call that backfires in a key moment of another loss to Ohio State.) The thought that Trump seized on an opportunity to play hero ball to appeal to voters in key Midwestern swing states forced Your Veteran Scribe to pause, take a long hot shower, toss back a stiff (really stiff) drink and then take another shower. Our country is fresh out of nightmare scenarios but if the presidential election is decided on the narrow vote margins from a few states in Big Ten Country where the citizens voted for Trump because he gave them back their football … #%&@!

“President Trump had nothing to do with our decision and did not impact thedeliberations,” the president of one Big Ten university told NBC News. “In fact, when his name came up, it was a negative because no one wanted this to be political.”

In a sane world, that would make sense. But after four years of gaslighting, it’s too dark to determine if any comment is made honestly or is some sort of political spin dictated by operatives who whisper directions/threats on the third floor of a deserted parking garage at 3 a.m.

Regardless of nefarious political power broking, the Big Ten’s 180 came after weeks of caterwauling and complaining about the initial decision. The divisive debate included the peanut gallery throwing digital haymakers at excellent college football reporters who were simply doing their jobs. Stories written explaining the Big Ten’s cautious decision, were digitally decried as “anti-football” – and never mind that those reporters’ paychecks
depend on the sport, well, uh, sporting.

My last offering on this site https://mediumhappy.com/?p=8807 came in late July before the Big Ten pulled the plug. I wrote and ranted that I was sick of sports and the desperate drum beat for college football. When the sport returned to my television screen, I was hypocritically happy to watch. Retired from my profession, I still enjoy my 12- to 14-hour Saturdays yelling at instant replay reviews and wittily countering comments by analysts.

Seeing Big 12 and ACC games Saturday with the SEC ready to return the weekend of Sept. 26 left the Big Ten facing more fan criticism. “Why the hell are they playing and not us?” Ohio State’s Bucknuts were especially livid, considering the Buckeyes have a team capable of winning a national championship (asterisk not included) and a quarterback (Justin Fields) who could win the Heisman Trophy (ceremony not yet scheduled but possibly to be held the day after Christmas.)

College football 2020 is already haphazard, slap dash and half ass. The return of the games has provided a sense of normalcy at a time when normal is a COVID-19 scoreboard where the Grim Reaper has 200,000-plus deaths and is averaging 1,000 victims per day.

As we deal with a New Normal that is ever changing, some thoughts:
 In late August, Abbott Laboratories announced it had developed a COVID-19 test that could deliver results in 15 minutes at the cost of $5 per test. This
improvement and development of rapid testing was a major factor in the Big Ten’s decision to play. The conference’s testing costs will be shared equally by the schools.

 The NFL, which opened its season last weekend, announced it would spend
$175 million on testing this season. BioReference Laboratories is charging the NFL a flat fee covering up to 120 tests per team per day, with extra tests
available at $125 each. The Big Ten hasn’t announced how much its daily testing will cost. Back of the envelope calculations, based on a $5 test and 150 daily tests per school would cost the Big Ten nearly $75,000 a week.

If you find it implausible and incongruous that sports leagues and their athletes are pushed to the front of the testing lines, you’re not wrong. Employees in meatpacking plants – many located in Big Ten states – have been declared essential workers by the federal government. Those essential workers have difficulty getting tested or getting quick results when they are tested. Personal anecdote: A friend was worried about having COVID and went to a rapid test location. She tested negative and her peace of mind cost $500 out of pocket (out of network).

 The Big Ten will open play Oct. 23-24. Teams will play eight games – six against division foes and two from teams in the opposite division. The conference championship game is scheduled for Dec. 19 and on that date the 12 teams that don’t make the title game will be play matched based on how they finished in the division standings. The other conferences have built-in openings in the calendar to accommodate games postponed by potential COVID outbreaks. The Big Ten has not margin for error.

And never mind players will play nine games in nine weeks and that they haven’t had spring practice or summer workouts to build strength and stamina that typically prepares them for a three-month season. No Big Ten team played more than seven consecutive weeks last season.

Already there have been over a dozen football games postponed/rescheduled. Arkansas State won at Kansas State last Saturday but this Saturday’s game against Central Arkansas was scratched when Arkansas State’s offensive line was quarantined. Army, jonesing for an opponent after Saturday’s foe BYU hadto back out because of the virus, asked – on Tuesday – if Central Arkansas could fill in. Nope. Too much, too soon and too far. (Yeah, sounds like “amateur

One reason the NCAA Manual (rule book) is a 500-page monster is because
member schools are like thieves dividing a haul – they don’t trust each other. Arcane rules have been layered in a foolish effort to establish a level playing field, to make Notre Dame equal to Rice. This season, teams are practicing differently, testing differently, disclosing results differently, teams will have significantly different depth charts depending on quaratines. There is no equal like there’s no normal.

 The College Football Playoff’s selection committee will face a monumental
challenge. The Big Ten is playing eight regular-season games; the Big 12 and
SEC are each playing 10. The ACC is playing 11. While the winners of those four leagues’ championship games figure to be likely choices for the four-team playoff, a 9-0 Ohio State team earning a bid over a 10-1 or 11-1 team from those other leagues will cause a special kind of controversy. College football’s post- season has always been about chaos, but the possibilities exist for a kind of chaos only associated with a Thanos finger snap.

 LSU coach Ed Orgeron, whose team won the national championship last season, said this week he thought most of his players had contracted COVID-19 and recovered. Scott Woodward, his athletic director, said Orgeron “was a bit too transparent.” Athletic departments have long mis-applied HIPPA and FERPA (student privacy protections) to keep information from the public. Nearly two dozen schools aren’t disclosing the number – just the number, not the names –of players who test positive.

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, a voice of reason
during the off-season, has decided to keep secret the number of Sooners who test positive for “competitive reasons.” Bool. Sheet.
On Sept. 9, 20-year-old Jamain Stephens died. He was a junior defensive lineman at California University of Pennsylvania. The school had suspended sports for the fall, but Stephens returned to campus to work out with his teammates. His family said he died of a blood clot to the heart after testing positive for COVID-19. He was at a Division II school so his pandemic-related death didn’t get the attention it would have if he was at
Cal-Berkeley or Penn State.

The coronavirus can be as mysterious as it can be deadly. If it doesn’t kill you, it doesn’t necessarily make you stronger. It can make you susceptible to heart, brain, lung and blood clot issues. Rolling the dice on the infection to play college football is something only I’m-gonna-live-forever college students would bet on. We can only fervently hope that over the next three months college football will successfully tap dance through the
mine field.

College football is ambitiously whistling past the (literal) graveyard. No vaccine is imminent. We haven’t “turned the corner” in terms of controlling the spread. Maybe the Big Ten was wrong in August and is right in September. Ultimately, we won’t know who’s wrong and who’s right until November. Positive news at 10 a.m. can be countered by negative news by noon.

Oh, that was the only cliff hanger awaiting us in the 11th month.

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