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Health

Big Ten, UI To Resume College Football Next Month, Reversing Cancellations

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Phil Roeder
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Flickr Creative Commons
The Big Ten Conference is resuming its college football season despite coronavirus concerns, reversing a previous decision.

The Big Ten, including the University of Iowa, will resume its college football season next month, despite coronavirus risks to players and fans, and persistent concerns about transmission rates on and around college campuses.

Conference leaders reversed their previous decision to cancel fall play due to the pandemic, even as public health experts warn of another surge of cases coinciding with colder weather and flu season this fall.

“The seriousness of the pandemic is still very real, but I’m pleased for our student-athletes, coaches, and fans that we’ve been able to create a path forward,” reads a written statement from UI Athletics Director Gary Barta. “The medical professionals at every Big Ten institution have worked tirelessly to create strong protocols that can be consistently applied to every campus.”

College football and its boosters hold tremendous sway in college towns across the country, culturally and economically. The games sustain scores of local businesses, as well as university athletic department operations well beyond football.

President Donald Trump has taken to Twitter to call for the games to resume and touted the announcement Wednesday, tweeting that it was “my great honor to have helped!!!”

According to a USA Today analysis, Hawkeye football brought in more than $151 million in revenue during the 2018-2019 school year. UI Athletics Director Gary Barta warned fans earlier this year his department was anticipating some $100 million in losses due to the pandemic.

Resuming the season would presumably help recoup some of those losses, at least in the short term, though UI Athletics Department spokesman Steve Roe told IPR its “too early to have an answer” on how the games could boost revenues, including from television broadcast deals.

Scheduling of the games has not yet been set.

The stipulations

Still, there are stipulations: commissioners say there will be no public ticket sales.

Additionally, under the conference’s reopening plan, all players, coaches and trainers will undergo daily antigen testing to monitor for the virus, which Barta called a “game changer."

“Our focus is now to train and prepare to compete on October 23-24, recognizing the health and safety of our players is our number one priority,” a written statement from UI Head Football Coach Kirk Ferentz reads in part. “I am proud of the attitude and work ethic our players have displayed over the past several weeks of uncertainty. The players are very excited to play and the coaches are excited to coach them.”

"The seriousness of the pandemic is still very real, but I’m pleased for our student-athletes, coaches, and fans that we’ve been able to create a path forward. The medical professionals at every Big Ten institution have worked tirelessly to create strong protocols that can be consistently applied to every campus."
Gary Barta, UI Athletics Director

Whether practices and games are able to continue will depend on both team and community positivity rates.

Daniel Diekema, Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, says that such coordinated testing should help catch cases early.

Still, he questioned this allocation of testing resources, noting that this kind of targeted surveillance has not been available to the state’s health care providers, nursing home residents or first responders.

“I think it reflects our societal values at this point,” Diekema said. “It’s just ironic that the kind of intensive testing protocols that are being proposed are the things that we should’ve been doing months ago to protect our essential workers, the people who ensure that we have food on our table every night.”

UI Athletics Department spokesman Steve Roe said it’s “too early in the process” to offer details on how the antigen tests would be supplied, but said a press conference will be scheduled when more information is available.

"It’s just ironic that the kind of intensive testing protocols that are being proposed are the things that we should’ve been doing months ago to protect our essential workers."
-Daniel Diekema, Director, UIHC Division of Infectious Diseases

Reporters questioned Gov. Kim Reynolds about the decision Wednesday morning and while she said she had not had the chance to review the metrics communities must meet in order for play to continue, she said she was “confident” the state could meet the requirements.

Just last month, Johnson and Story counties, home to the state’s largest public universities, had among the highest rates of new cases per capita in the world, coinciding with college students’ return to campus.

The Big 12 conference has already resumed games, with the Iowa State University facing off against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette on Sept. 12, though without the 25,000 spectators that administrators initially planned to welcome.

Potential increase in transmission 'seems inevitable'

Even without fans in the stands, Sam Jarvis, community health division manager at Johnson County Public Health said he’s concerned that tailgating and parties around the games, and the reopening of bars in some of the state’s most populous counties, could spur more transmission.

“They’ll have certainly a lot of other policies and other measures that they’re implementing on site [at the stadium]. So that’s probably less of a concern,” Jarvis said. “It’s more the gathering that watching the game will cause.”

Resuming the season is not without risk to players themselves. According to the Big Ten, players who do test positive will undergo “comprehensive cardiac testing," including labs, an echocardiogram and a cardiac MRI. Those players will also be added to a cardiac registry in an effort to “answer many of the unknowns regarding the cardiac manifestations” of the disease.

Diekema warns that it “seems inevitable” that resuming college football will result in more cases of the virus, which as of Wednesday had killed 1,237 Iowans, more deaths than have been documented in entire nations such as Australia, Israel and South Korea, according to a tracker from the New York Times.

Diekema points to a lack of coordinated state and federal response to track the virus, slow its spread, and sufficiently reduce community transmission in order to safely reopen the economy.

“It’s not the students’ fault. It’s not the fault of the college athletes,” he said. “It’s really a tremendous sort of societal failure to do the right things at the right time.”