Big Ten Politics

An unknown man announces the weather at the upcoming football game before announcing the start of the national anthem. Instead of people rising, shots of empty football stadiums dominate the rest of Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s ad before ending with a statement.

“Trump put America on the sidelines. Let’s get back in the game.”

Those three stadiums were Camp Randall, home of the Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan Stadium, home of the Michigan Wolverines and Beaver Stadium, home of the Penn State Nittany Lions. All three are iconic venues not only in the Big Ten, but also in college football. Now, they lie empty due to continuing concerns surrounding COVID-19. Immediately, Trump fired back that he wanted the Big Ten to play football and said that life is under attack.

This is what happens in an election year: decisions are magnified to service the needs of whichever party’s presidential candidate it most immediately suits. The Big Ten’s postponement, in turn, appears to be a decision influenced by the election because one party is now using that decision as an attacking point.

For some, the election is an easy scapegoat to justify or criticize the Big Ten’s decision.  Five states in 2016 shifted from Democratic states to Republican ones, helping secure President Donald Trump’s victory. Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Iowa — all in Big Ten Country — were the critical states that flipped. This observation feeds into the narrative of the Big Ten trying to shift the election.

The conspiracy goes that the Big Ten postponed fall sports, not because of a global pandemic, but because they wanted to target the president and sway the election. The Big Ten postponed fall sports to prove that there won’t be normal life until after the election with a Biden win.

This type of reasoning discards any actual reasons behind the Big Ten’s decision. Instead of looking at the coronavirus and the coronavirus’ treatment of student athletes, the decision is pinned to a single sinister reason because no truth exists that easily conforms to their reality.

What blaming the election does is ignore the root cause of the Big Ten’s decision. The Big Ten’s decision to postpone fall sports was focused on how well the conference felt it could handle the pandemic. It did not feel confident, and, instead of testing their luck, the Big Ten closed shop on fall sports. 

In the aftermath, the Big Ten might be proving themselves right. Michigan State has already moved online for the semester, and Illinois’ massive testing stations don't prevent students from going out. Iowa is one of the worst schools in the country with 962 cases, according to the New York Times’ tracker of COVID-19 cases on American campuses.

That makes Iowa City the biggest Big Ten hotspot and one of the worst schools in the country at handling the pandemic.

The schools can’t fully control their student athletes, no matter the rules. It’s an issue with college athletes because they go to class and are on campus near others that they don’t know. Even with the soft “bubbles” that people seem to suggest, they seem to ignore the reality of day-to-day life on a college campus. There are lots of unknowns with the entire student body along with faculty and other staff members, which couldn’t be controlled for without a herculean effort.

A bubble ends the conversation of amateurism in college sports, as student athletes have to put sports above anything else. That questions why the Big Ten emphasizes the student before the athlete, something the conference prides itself on.

Student athletes can’t live in their own bubble, as the honor system has failed. Iowa’s 93 positive cases in the athletic department halted all workouts on Aug. 31 while Maryland’s 46 positive cases stopped workouts on Sept. 3. If there was a season right now, that’s weeks of practice lost, which would put the teams at a disadvantage.

There is valid criticism of the Big Ten presidents, but the criticism is overshadowed by election talks. The conference had six months to come up with a plan, and they even released a new conference-only schedule days before postponement.

The Big Ten’s Return to Competition Task Force has yet to release its plans when it comes to resuming athletic competition in the conference, so it’s very unclear what direction the Big Ten is moving towards. There is a lack of communication going on, and, instead of questioning the Big Ten, blaming the election portrays the Big Ten as devious and hiding something.

Big Ten presidents, the ones who voted for a postponement, want things back to the way they should be. That idea has backfired with more COVID-19 cases on Big Ten campuses every week as students continue to live on and near campus.

The thing is, there is no one saying that Big Ten schools support Trump because they brought students back on campus to get the college experience and full tuition. This is an attempt to return to normal life, and it’s backfired due to a lack of leadership and a mishandling of the pandemic.

That’s what blaming the election ignores. It avoids the topic of 2020: the coronavirus. It ignores how the virus should be dealt with and instead turns every decision into a matter of partisanship, a reality that only serves the people who perform the worst during these trying times.

The election makes the Big Ten look evil when incompetence better tells why Big Ten schools didn’t have a sports plan for six months, still don’t have a plan and then still brought thousands of students back to campus with most schools not having the infrastructure to contain the coronavirus.