The Big 12 Conference became the most important league in the land Tuesday, and with its announcement Wednesday morning, the conference sided with the most dominant college football conferences.
After the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced plans to cancel fall sports – including football – for the upcoming school year, attention focused on the Big 12 as the swing vote. The SEC and ACC had already made it known they intended to move forward toward a season.
The Big 12 made it official Wednesday morning, following reports Tuesday evening that the league will stay the course with attempting to have a fall football season, which was already altered to be a 10-game season, trimming two nonconference games.
“The Board continues to believe that the health and well-being of our student-athletes must guide all decisions” commented Board of Directors Chairman and TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini in the release by the league. “To that end, the Board has consistently relied on the advice and counsel of top medical experts to determine the viability of available options. Our student-athletes want to compete, and it is the Board’s collective opinion that sports can be conducted safely and in concert with the best interests of their well-being.
“We remain vigilant in monitoring the trends and effects of COVID 19 as we learn more about the virus. If at any point our scientists and doctors conclude that our institutions cannot provide a safe and appropriate environment for our participants, we will change course.”
Part of the league’s decision to move forward included expanding precautions for student-athletes in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Per the release, the league will expand testing that will include three tests per week in “high contact” sports such as football, volleyball and soccer. For those athletes who are found to be positive for the virus, exams will now include undergoing an EKG, troponin blood test, echocardiogram and cardiac MRI as part of the return to play protocols.
According to the league, nonconference football opponents “must also adhere to COVID-19 testing protocols that conform to Big 12 standards during the week leading up to competition.”
“The virus continues to evolve and medical professionals are learning more with each passing week,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in the league release. “Opinions vary regarding the best path forward, as we’ve seen throughout higher education and our society overall, but we are comfortable in our institutions’ ability to provide a structured training environment, rigorous testing and surveillance, hospital quality sanitation and mitigation practices that optimize the health and safety of our student-athletes. We believe all of this combines to create an ideal learning and training situation during this time of COVID-19.
“Ultimately, our student-athletes have indicated their desire to compete in the sports they love this season and it is up to all of us to deliver a safe, medically sound, and structured academic and athletic environment for accomplishing that outcome.”
One of the newer developments that has drawn concern for presidents is growing knowledge on the potential for cardiac issues brought on by the virus.
Myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart muscle that can reduce the heart’s ability to pump and cause rapid or abnormal heart rhythms – has been linked to COVID-19, with Boston Red Sox ace pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez having to sit out this MLB season due to the ailment. According to CBS Sports, a source within the Big Ten state at least 15 league players have the heart ailment after contracting COVID-19 and is a likely contributor for the league canceling fall football.
“Our medical professionals have told us, ‘move forward, go slowly, make adjustments as needed,’” Bowlsby said in a teleconference Wednesday morning. “If we get to a point where our doctors say you have two wheels off the track and you’re headed for a wreck, we pivot that day."
Alongside the official release, the Big 12 sent out the new conference schedule, which has built in two bye weeks during conference play – “and potentially a third bye late in the season” – and alterations to the original lineup of dates.
Big 12 programs will start the season with a nonconference opponent, with Oklahoma State announcing its opener will be Tulsa, and will be played at Boone Pickens Stadium on Sept. 12, as originally scheduled.
The Cowboys will now open conference play at home against West Virginia on Sept. 26. Their originally scheduled league opener – at TCU – will close out the schedule on Dec. 5, which was the original date for the conference championship. That will now be played either Dec. 12 or Dec. 19. The Bedlam game in Norman will now be played Nov. 21.
The conference is also leaving stadium capacities to each university “in accordance with local and/or state health ordinances, and working with government officials.” Oklahoma State has not made any official announcement yet on capacity at Boone Pickens Stadium for this fall, but will be implementing safety procedures that require spacing between blocks of seats, as well as face coverings and other precautions.
While the focus has mainly been on football, the league also included a caveat for other fall sports – volleyball and soccer matches “will be limited to conference opponents only.”
For Oklahoma State women’s soccer, that means they will not begin playing until Sept. 10 with a match at Texas Tech. According the OSU athletic website, the Cowgirls will play four league opponents twice – preseason favorite Texas Tech, TCU, Kansas State and Kansas – with home-and-home matchups with those four.
An Oklahoma State spokesperson said the soccer schedule is still a fluid situation. No other league member has a new schedule for the soccer slate on their official websites.
Obviously one of the biggest obstacles the Big 12 – along with the SEC and ACC – faces will be the introduction of general public students on campus and the potential for a spike locally in COVID-19 cases.
At Oklahoma State, students began moving in over the weekend, and a drive through the heart of the campus showed differing levels of student response in regards to precautions – with a mix of groups walking while wearing masks, and other groups not wearing masks and not concerned with social distancing.
According to the CDC website, the states that are seeing the largest spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases over the past seven days are focused in the states in which the leagues want to play football. Eight of the top 10 states in reported cases in the past week are home to Big 12, SEC and ACC programs –Texas, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina – with each state reporting over 8,000 cases in the past seven days.