The Big Ten Conference, one of the wealthiest and most powerful leagues in college sports, had been besieged for weeks to reverse its policy not to play football this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic. But as recently as last week, many of the university leaders behind the league’s most consequential decisions were skeptical of altering their approach.
Then came a new series of conversations with the league’s medical advisers, who had kept deliberating even after they led the conference’s presidents and chancellors to conclude overwhelmingly last month that the pandemic made it too risky to play until at least 2021. By Wednesday morning, the league’s 14 universities, including athletic powerhouses like Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, had unanimously agreed to try to play football as soon as Oct. 23, but without fans in the stadiums.
The turnabout fed debate over whether political interference and the allure of enormous broadcast contracts — not to mention the envy-inducing sight of other college and professional sports leagues filling the airwaves with their own games — had led the university leaders to surrender. But some top players welcomed the decision, and Big Ten leaders insisted that they had reconsidered because of, not in spite of, medical advice.
What changed between Aug. 11, when they first elected not to play this autumn, and Wednesday, they said, was the conference’s ability to guarantee daily testing of its athletes and its development of screening protocols for virus-related heart ailments, conditions so poorly understood that they deeply unnerved university leaders in August.
The league said any player who tested positive would be barred from games for at least 21 days and said that a team would stop practice and competition for at least a week if it recorded a positivity rate of more than 5 percent over a rolling seven-day period. Players who test positive must also pass a battery of heart-related screenings, including a cardiac M.R.I. exam, though the conference acknowledged that there are many “unknowns regarding the cardiac manifestations in Covid-19 positive elite athletes.”
The Big Ten’s announcement on Wednesday applied only to football. It said plans for other fall sports, as well as winter sports like basketball and wrestling, would be announced “shortly.”
More than 8,500 cases of the virus have been reported at Big Ten universities over the course of the pandemic, according to a New York Times database of infections at colleges. Four of those universities had more than 1,000 cases, many of which were detected by aggressive testing of students returning to campus this fall, and some Big Ten schools have already suspended or ended most in-person classes for this semester.
Still, 11 university chiefs switched their votes to support competing this fall, just weeks after Kevin Warren, the Big Ten commissioner, pointedly said the decision not to play this year would “not be revisited.”
Rebecca M. Blank, the chancellor at Wisconsin, said the new plans had “allayed” her misgivings. Mark Schlissel, Michigan’s president and an immunologist by training, cited evolving knowledge about the virus and said officials had “adjusted our approach based on the new information that was developed.” Mitch Daniels, Purdue’s president and a Republican former governor of Indiana, said that “things we all learned, along with some technological advances, have produced a plan that is safer for our players and staff than it would have been originally.”
Rutgers, whose president just last week signaled his sustained opposition to playing this fall, issued a statement that was not effusive in its support of a season but said the league’s plan was “sufficiently compelling that conference members now support a plan to begin playing.”
Before the Big Ten’s announcement in August, players had urged the conference and the league to prepare “a comprehensive plan to ensure the safety and well-being of players” during the season. The league’s decision days later limited that nascent movement’s power, but in the turbulent weeks that followed, some Big Ten players, including Justin Fields, the Ohio State quarterback, urged the conference to find a way to play.
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“Let’s goooooo!!!” Fields tweeted on Wednesday.
The White House sought to claim credit for the restoration of Big Ten football after President Trump called Warren on Sept. 1 to offer federal support. League officials said, though, that the conference had not accepted any aid from Washington and scoffed at the president’s Wednesday morning tweet in which he said it was his “great honor to have helped!!!”
“It wasn’t about political pressure, it wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about lawsuits and it wasn’t about what everyone else is doing,” Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern and the chairman of the Big Ten’s Council of Presidents and Chancellors, said of what had shaped his thinking.
But the reversal, one of the most striking in the history of college sports and announced 36 days after the Big Ten became the first Power 5 league to drop plans for football in 2020, instantly quelled some of the pressure the league faced from prominent coaches, players, fans and the president. And with athletic departments hemorrhaging money to the point that some had already begun to cut sports programs, the decision provoked accusations that the league was prioritizing profits, entertainment and a measure of public relations peace over health and safety.
Officials at the handful of schools that voted last month to play, including Ohio State, which is likely to contend for this unusual season’s national title, all but lit firecrackers on Wednesday, victorious after weeks of openly fanning dissent.
“Our players want to play, our coaches want to coach and our fans want to watch,” said Bill Moos, the athletic director at Nebraska. “And we’re going to be able to do all of these things now, and that’s why it is a celebration. And I believe, and very strongly, that the state of Nebraska needs football.”
Leagues that have returned to play, like the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 12, have sometimes found it tricky to navigate the epidemiological perils of the pandemic. A handful of games have been postponed, some teams have held out players because of positive tests or contact tracing and stadiums are operating with fewer spectators in the stands or none at all.
The Southeastern Conference, which intends to begin a league-only schedule on Sept. 26, is requiring players to be tested three times a week, as are the A.C.C. and the Big 12.
The Big Ten is expected to release a schedule later this week, but the league’s teams are poised to play eight regular-season games each, with the top teams from each division advancing to a conference championship game on Dec. 19. In a twist, teams that fail to reach the title showdown will play an exhibition game of sorts against the team in the opposite division with the same position in the standings. Had a similar system been in place last season, for example, Penn State, which finished second in the East Division, would have met Minnesota, the runner-up in the West Division, for a final game. Some games could be adjusted to avoid rematches.
Although some Big Ten teams paused all athletic activities because of outbreaks, many held limited practices in the weeks after the season was first scratched. Teams, coaches reasoned, needed to remain ready regardless of when games were allowed — and especially if they were scheduled quickly, as they now apparently will be.
“We don’t know when it’s going to be,” Tom Allen, Indiana’s coach, said late last month. “That’s what keeps you on your toes.”
The decision by the Big Ten immediately directed new attention toward the Pac-12, which also said Aug. 11 that it would not play football this year. Football players at the University of Southern California wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom this week and urged him to lift restrictions keeping the state’s four Pac-12 members — California, Stanford, U.C.L.A. and U.S.C. — from returning to play. Other players in the league followed along on Twitter with their pleas to the governor.
The Pac-12 recently struck a deal for daily testing, and the league’s commissioner, Larry Scott, said Wednesday that conference leaders were “eager for our student-athletes to have the opportunity to play this season, as soon as it can be done safely and in accordance with public health authority approvals.”
Jonathan Martin, Mitch Smith and Billy Witz contributed reporting.