The Big Ten Conference on Tuesday canceled its football season, becoming the first major college football conference to slash its fall plans amid the coronavirus pandemic.
College football has become a flashpoint in the fight over reopening the country, with government officials using the sport as a tool to encourage public compliance with health protocols. President Donald Trump inserted himself into the debate this week and urged schools to let their athletes play.
But in the case of the Big Ten, it wasn’t enough. The predominantly Midwestern conference, which has 14 member schools and boasts some of the biggest names in college sports, decided the risks were too great to play even a limited, all-conference season.
“As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a news release.
The statement did not confirm any plans for the fall sports to be played in the spring. While football is the main fall sport for the Big Ten, the decision also affects men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball.
“The Big Ten Conference will continue to evaluate a number of options regarding these sports, including the possibility of competition in the spring,” the statement read.
The news, first reported on Monday by sportscaster Dan Patrick, prompted immediate opposition from prominent Republican lawmakers. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a former Ohio State wrestling coach, simply wrote on Twitter, “America needs college football.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) released a letter to the Big Ten pleading for the season to remain on.
“Canceling the season would mean closing down socially-distanced, structured programs for these athletes,” Sasse wrote, referencing a campaign from star college football players to keep their season intact.
University of Nebraska officials opposed the Big Ten’s decision and claimed their athletes would be safest playing for the school during the fall.
“We are very disappointed in the decision by the Big Ten Conference to postpone the fall football season, as we have been and continue to be ready to play,” top university officials, including the head football coach and the school’s chancellor, said in a statement. “We hope it may be possible for our student athletes to have the opportunity to compete.“
Trump allies, like Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, also slammed the Big Ten’s decision to call off the fall season.
“The @bigten Conference doesn’t care about their students, athletes, or alumni,” Kirk wrote on Twitter. “What a disgrace to America they are. Disgusting and pathetic. This cannot stand! America needs college football. Defund the Big Ten!”
College athletes from across the country, including Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, launched a social media campaign Sunday night with the message “#WeWantToPlay.” The players pledged their desire to compete in the fall while calling for universal health and safety protocols, protection of eligibility for players who decide to opt out and the formation of a union for players.
The Big Ten’s cancellation follows over 1,000 Big Ten athletes signing an open letter demanding the NCAA and the conference implement stricter safety protocols for the potential fall season. The conference had already restricted its fall season before it was canceled, announcing on Aug. 5 that its teams would play 10 games, all inside the conference, with a scheduled start date of Sept. 5.
The Mid-American Conference became the first FBS conference to cancel its fall season when it announced on Saturday that no football would be played in 2020. Other Division I FCS conferences like the Ivy League have already called off their fall sports seasons.