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Big Ten Conference Will Play Football After All


The Big Ten has changed its mind about playing football. Last month, it became the first major college conference to postpone the huge moneymaking sport because of concerns about the coronavirus. Today the Big Ten, which includes perennial football powers like Ohio State and Michigan, announced it does plan to play, starting in late October. The decision follows lots of pressure to return, including from President Trump. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman joins us now to talk about that.

Hi, Tom.


PFEIFFER: Tom, let's go back to last month, when the Big Ten commissioner, Kevin Warren, postponed fall sports, including football. At the time, he said there was too much uncertainty about potential medical risks to allow student athletes to compete. What changed?

GOLDMAN: It appears that uncertainty changed in the minds of Big Ten officials. Now, obviously, the virus still is with us, including on Big Ten campuses. But the conference feels it now has more certainty about the risks because of what it calls significant medical protocols to help keep athletes safe. And those include daily testing. That's critical. Athletes, coaches, anyone on the field for practices and games has to take a daily antigen test. Now, that's the speedier test. You can get results within minutes, but it's not the most accurate. So any athlete who tests positive with that test will then take a more accurate one to confirm.

PFEIFFER: Tom, when the Big Ten and then the Pac-12 postponed football, there was also a concern about potential heart issues for athletes infected with the coronavirus. Has that changed?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, there was growing concern about heart inflammation called myocarditis in athletes who tested positive. It can cause arrhythmias and sudden death in athletes taking part in strenuous exercise. Today I asked a sports cardiology expert, Dr. Jonathan Drezner from the University of Washington, whether anything has changed since last month about the understanding of COVID-19-related myocarditis or whether it's still a risk. And here's what he said.

JONATHAN DREZNER: You know, we're still concerned that it can be an issue, and there will be more, you know, cases of confirmed myocarditis in young athletes who are infected with COVID. And if we can identify them, then we can, you know, hopefully manage them very safely. So it is a risk.

GOLDMAN: But, Sacha, it's a risk the Big Ten believes can be mitigated with these new safety protocols, and they include what Dr. Drezner calls a really extensive cardiac evaluation for players who test positive for the virus. The evaluation includes an echocardiogram, a cardiac MRI and, in order to get back to play, clearance from a cardiologist.

PFEIFFER: All right. So a lot of health and safety measures going into this resumption...


PFEIFFER: ...Of Big Ten football. But of course, Tom, college football is not just a sport. It's a business. What other factors played a role in the Big Ten's decision to go ahead with its season?

GOLDMAN: Well, Sacha, money and pressure were not cited in today's Big Ten press release but not a stretch, really, to say those might have factored in. Big Ten football is big money - millions and millions in TV revenues and sponsors. And, you know, the conference would have taken a huge financial hit with absolutely no football - yes, lots of pressure since the decision to postpone in mid-August. Players' parents protested outside conference headquarters. Some Nebraska players sued the Big Ten.

And, yes, President Trump is very aware the Big Ten cuts a huge swath through the Midwest, a key region in the upcoming election. Trump said he talked to Big Ten Commissioner Warren this month and urged him to start up football. Today Trump tweeted, Big Ten football is back. It is my great honor to have helped. Now, an unnamed Big Ten university president told NBC News Trump had nothing to do with the decision. When Trump's name came up during deliberations, the university president said it was negative because no one wanted this to be political.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

Tom, thank you.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYAN HELSING'S "CASCADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.