“Leaders lead” is a well-known adage, but what happens when someone tries to lead and nobody follows? It’s a scenario that any thoughtful leader has contemplated.
The Big Ten Conference, the oldest and arguably most successful Division I collegiate athletic conference in the United States, is going through this right now after having initially canceled or postponed all fall sports due to health concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic under the assumption that other conferences would follow suit.
Few did. The Big 12 and most other conferences proceeded with fall sports and, while there was an initial spike in college student COVID-19 cases across the country, few college athletic teams have been significantly impacted by the virus.
Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren reportedly said he botched the decision to cancel fall sports and even said that the decision to postpone sports would not be revisited.
Last week the Big Ten reversed its decision and will now allow fall football after all. University of Iowa football, which has a massive economic impact on the regional economy, will resume the weekend of Oct. 23. The season will be shortened to eight weeks with the championship game scheduled for Dec. 19. That will make the Big Ten eligible for the College Football Playoffs. No other word has been given on other fall sports, or winter sports such as basketball and wrestling.
This is great news for the athletes, coaches, fans and at least some parts of the economy. No fans will be allowed in the stadiums and therefore most hotels and related hospitality businesses will not enjoy the traffic they would get if more than 70,000 fans and hangers-on descend on Iowa City for a normal football weekend. We do expect bars, restaurants and some retailers to benefit from the resumption of games, even if they are only aired on television.
“College football is a mega economy, which so many universities and athletic departments have grown dependent upon,” Wall Street Journal Columnist Jason Gay observed in a recent column. “There will be no butts in seats in the Big Ten this fall, but there will be TV cameras, and in a lot of ways, that’s what this is all about.”
What we do know is that the COVID-19 pandemic is inextricably linked with health concerns and economics. In a normal political year, that divide would be extremely challenging, but with the toxic political environment that we are in today, any decision dealing with COVID-19 is bound to be criticized and examined under a microscope and layered with the harshest political discourse.
The Big Ten Conference is used to leading. An important part of leading is knowing when you got something wrong and being willing to correct it, even if means swallowing some pride. We applaud the Big Ten for changing course and letting sports resume this fall. CBJ