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Big Ten presidents meet, don't vote on whether to postpone or play football this fall

Big Ten presidents and chancellors are taking part in a regularly scheduled meeting Saturday with the upcoming football season the primary focus of the agenda, but a conference official confirmed to The Detroit News there will be no vote on whether to go forward with or postpone football this fall.

There’s growing sentiment, however, among Michigan and Michigan State officials that the fall football season will be postponed because of health and safety factors for players and coaches because of the COVID-19 pandemic that suspended on-campus activities across the country in mid-March.

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren apparently would prefer to move the football season to the spring, according to sources who spoke to The Detroit News on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the topic.

With the Mid-American Conference announcing Saturday its decision to postpone football until the spring, there is increasing discussion nationally that this could snowball as other conferences follow that lead.

The Michigan State and Michigan football teams opened preseason camp Thursday and Friday, respectively, just days after Warren announced a 10-game composite football schedule set to kick off Labor Day weekend as well as testing protocols for all Big Ten programs.

The league last month announced it would play conference-games only and revealed the composite schedule on Wednesday. Michigan State opens against Minnesota and Michigan faces Purdue on Sept. 5

Both teams were practicing Saturday as scheduled, but the Big Ten announced Saturday that all programs will remain in the acclimatization period during preseason camp, delaying padded practice, meaning helmets-only, no pads for now. Two more Michigan State players also announced they have opted out of the season because of COVID-19 concerns bringing the total to four who have made that decision. Michigan has not yet had a player announce he is opting out.

“Based on the advice and counsel of the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, that, until further notice, all institutions will remain in the first two days of the acclimatization period in football (i.e., helmets shall be the only piece of protective equipment student-athletes may wear) as we continue to transition prudently through preseason practice,” the Big Ten statement released Saturday reads. “All other fall sports will continue to work locally with team physicians and athletic trainers to adjust practices to the appropriate level of activity, as necessary, based on current medical protocols.”

While everyone would like to see a football season this fall, one source told the News a large majority of Big Ten officials agree it is unsafe and realistically nearly impossible to pull off.

Warren, who is advised by a task force of medical experts with representatives from each Big Ten school, said Wednesday that the schedule release did not necessarily mean the season would happen. He has carefully worded all releases the last few months to keep that as an important possibility.

“Flexibility is so critically important,” Warren said earlier this week. “We are very hopeful to have a Big Ten football season, to have fall sports in our Big Ten conference. But again, we’re approaching this entire process on a day-to-day basis. We’re gathering medical information daily. We’re communicating with all of our constituents in the Big Ten, we’re communicating with our student-athletes and having dialogue with them. This will not be a straight line this year.

“Again, we’ve released schedule, but we’ve done it in the context of we have to play ahead, but we understand we are in a pandemic, we’re doing the best we can possibly can to create an environment where our student-athletes can get a world-class education at one of our institutions, but also if we’re so fortunate that compete in intercollegiate athletics here this fall. We need to make sure the health and safety and the wellness remain at the top of our list.”

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, who informed Michigan season-ticket holders this week that the athletic department has budgeted $61 million less in revenues this year and could double if a decision is made not to play sports this year, told The Detroit News on Thursday that while this situation has been difficult to navigate, the conference athletic directors have worked diligently to maintain safety precautions for their athletes.

 “We’ve had over 100 conference calls since mid-March when this all happened,” Manuel said. “We’re all dealing with something that we didn’t think we’d be dealing with. We knew (the coronavirus) was elsewhere in the world, but it wasn’t until February, March when it really started to hit here in the U.S. did we start to really think about the impact this could have on our country, our states, our universities and athletics.

“Everybody’s dealing with this, right? So I’m not going to over-emphasize and make my problems any bigger than everybody else’s no matter what industry you’re in, no matter who you are in our society, we all have to do our part and all have to do things differently at this point in life. I’m trying to do my best to do focus on leading in these times that we find ourselves in. I’m not going to make excuses, I’m not going to lament about ‘I wish.’ I can’t wish it to be different, so I’m wasting my time if I spend a lot of time sitting around saying, ‘I wish things were different.’ All I can do is continue to work with the facts and the things we have in front of us and try to make the best decisions with some of the best people.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who appeared Friday on the “In the Trenches” podcast, said “well over” 100 players were tested this week and all returned negative on Wednesday. He said his players have been vigilant in terms of wearing masks and social distancing.

Michigan State’s football program ended a 14-day quarantine on Wednesday after two staff members tested positive for COVID-19. The open of preseason camp on Friday was one of the first full-squad workouts for first-year coach Mel Tucker and his staff.

Tucker offered his support for players who have opted out while doing his best to keep everyone in the program safe while preparing for a possible season.

“There's just so many unknowns, but what we're doing is we're focusing on the truth,” Tucker said. “The truth of what we know right now today. And based on what we know, then we know what we can do with that information. How can we act? What are the things that we can put in place based on what we know? Then with that information, we're going to try to get it right, and try to get it right every day. At the end of the day, we'll review it and we'll learn from that day, then we'll take it to the next day with what we know to be true, what we know to be real, what we know to be certain, and try to get that day right, and that's pretty much all we can do.”

Manuel said that any decisions made, ultimately, are with the safety of the student-athletes in mind.

“I’d love to see football, I’d love to see soccer, I’d love to see our student-athletes doing what they normally do, and I’d love for our campus to have the vibrancy it normally has,” Manuel said. “We are doing things to put in place protocols for health and safety, but there’s still a lot of unknowns that we just don’t know. We’re figuring it out, we’re dealing with, we’re putting in those protocols in and following them here.

“But there’s a lot of independent, individual responsibility that has to be followed. It means we don’t go to parties, it means we limit numbers of people. We’re limiting those exposures we have in order to continue to move forward to do some of those things, we’re just all doing them differently.”

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Twitter: @chengelis

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Twitter: @mattcharboneau

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