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College sports: Big Ten to limit football, fall sports to only conference games
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College sports: Big Ten to limit football, fall sports to only conference games

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Big Ten Conference teams will only play against each other this fall, if they play at all.

The conference confirmed reports Thursday that all non-conference competition this fall will be nixed in order to eliminate some long-distance travel and to ensure that universal COVID-19 testing is being conducted on student-athletes, according to ESPN sources close to the situation.

Men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, football, men’s and women’s soccer, and volleyball schedules will be affected by the decision.

For the University of Wisconsin football team, that means the Badgers’ marquee game against Notre Dame in October at Lambeau Field in Green Bay won’t happen, nor will home games against Southern Illinois (Sept. 12) or Appalachian State (Sept. 19).

“We are facing uncertain and unprecedented times, and the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches, game officials, and others associated with our sports programs and campuses remain our number one priority,” a statement from the conference read. “By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions, the Conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic.”

The Big Ten is the second conference to announce a major shift in its fall sports schedule this week. The Ivy League announced Wednesday that it will postpone its fall sports until 2021.

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren appeared on the Big Ten Network Thursday afternoon and said the decision was made with student-athletes in mind.

“At the end of the day, this decision would allow us to do the right thing by our student-athletes, keeping them at the forefront of all of our decisions, and make sure we create an environment to give us the best chance to play,” Warren said. “One thing we have to realize is that this is not a fait accompli that we’re going to have sports in the fall. We may not have sports in the fall, we may not have a college football season in the Big Ten.”

According to ESPN, Big Ten presidents and athletic directors discussed conference-only scenarios early this week and coaches were consulted on Thursday. Some involved in the discussion were in favor of keeping one non-conference game, but there is “overwhelming support” for a 10-game football schedule featuring solely Big Ten games.

The Big Ten said details for each sport will be released at a later date. Football games will likely be shifted up the calendar as dates open up from canceling non-conference games.

“This decision was made following many thoughtful conversations over several months between the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors, Directors of Athletics, Conference Office staff, and medical experts including the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee,” the statement read.

The conference also acknowledged that fall sports might not be played at all.

“As we continue to focus on how to play this season in a safe and responsible way, based on the best advice of medical experts, we are also prepared not to play in order to ensure the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes should the circumstances so dictate,” the statement said.

Warren said the conference will put together the new football schedule “in the next week or so,” after working with TV partners.

In football, 36 non-conference opponents were scheduled — 28 from the FBS, six from the FCS. Ball State, Bowling Green, BYU, Central Michigan, UConn and Northern Illinois were scheduled to play two Big Ten teams in the non-conference slate.

UW’s game against Northwestern, originally scheduled for Nov. 7, was moved Wednesday from Wrigley Field in Chicago to Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, Illinois.

As part of Thursday’s announcement, the Big Ten said student-athletes who choose not to participate in their sports this summer or during the 2020-21 academic year due to COVID-19 concerns “will continue to have their scholarship honored by their institution and will remain in good standing with their team.”

Indiana athletic director Scott Dolson said he and his Big Ten colleagues “know that there remain many questions that still need to be answered, and we will work toward finding those answers in the coming weeks.”

The announcement came a day after the Ivy League called off fall sports and Stanford announced it was cutting 11 varsity sports as it struggles with the financial impact the virus outbreak is having on its budget.

There was no immediate reaction from the other big conferences, though the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 have all indicated they intend to play fall sports, anchored by football, by far the biggest moneymaker.

Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk was asked about the possible rationale for a conference-only schedule.

“Probably, it’s a comfort level of how protocols are being enacted, how testing is done and then keeping it within that family, if you will — your expanded social circle or social pod,” said Sterk, whose Tigers play in the SEC. “You might be able to control things more that way, or feel like you can, anyway versus the unknown of people coming from outside our 11 states.”

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