Stick to Sports: Why the Big Ten was Always Going to Mess This Up


In 2020, college football is a sea of competing narratives. The facade of amateurism makes the narratives more complex. I would also argue that it is our most politically divided sport. This year has seen various schools, conferences, and fanbases aligning themselves with what they think is the correct course of action amidst a global pandemic with very little agreement and, in some cases, very little science and common sense. I will try to explain how we got here in as broadly accurate terms as possible and along the way, will do some nation-building.

Enter the Big Ten

The Big Ten was the first conference to start making decisions regarding their fall sports for the “2020 Pandemic Extravaganza Season.” Their first decision was to go conference only, the reason being they could have a more uniform testing protocol (lol) across their member institutions, and who cares about those tiny schools that need the payout to come get their ass beat by THE Ohio State University anyway?

That quickly morphed over the course of a few weeks to delaying the start of the season and then, later, outright cancelling fall sports. That was likely the correct decision, but the way it was carried out is akin to when you cut across three lanes of traffic and the striped median to get off at the exit you almost missed on the freeway. The Pac 12 soon followed and conference crossover games were a mess.

The SEC followed along as far as delaying the season, but the ACC and, for reasons I can’t quite understand, the Big 12 decided they weren’t going to delay at all. Deadly virus be damned! It’s important to note early on in this pandemic that Dabo Swinney, head coach of ACC frontrunner Clemson, made an acronym of his team’s mascot TIGERS: This is Gonna End Real Soon. It has not.

So what we have here in this CFB Civil War is a division between schools in the South and East pitted against schools in the North and West. For obvious reasons, we will shorten these names to Southeastia and Northwesternland… Oh Northwestern is a school? In the Big Ten? Whose coach famously hates the idea of a player’s union? I’m sure none of this is foreshadowing.

college football nations map
Rough territories held by Southeastia and Northwesternland in August of 2020.

But it’s not entirely that simple. You can see on the above map that there is a lot more crossover in the two nations than one would assume. That is because there is an insurgent nation enclosed within both countries. We will call this nation Claytravistan. The Claytravistanis  were outraged that football was being cancelled to hurt the president, destroy small businesses, or to do an “antifa”. Dozens of Claytravistani loyal Big Ten parents stormed the parking lot of an empty conference home office.

Elsewhere, in August, a few key players from across the country started the #WeWantToPlay trend on twitter.* It was of course well received by the Claytravistani citizens and officials alike. To be fair, it was the most compelling aspect of a potential season, not because I was looking for an excuse for CFB to happen, but I felt for these young men who had the least say in whether or not the sport they wanted to play happened at all. Olympic athletes also fall into this category; however, an important distinction between the two is that Olympians are allowed to profit off of their immense talent and “student athletes” are not. Also, most hilariously, the players used this movement as a bait and switch to demand a player’s association! Keep that same intensity presidential adviser Travis**! Let’s get these boys paid now!

Claytravistan sphere of influence.

*Around the same time, our big dumb president started really campaigning to bring Big Ten football back. He does not actually care about whether football is going on, but he thinks that will help him in the midwest where he desperately needs the votes. He has since claimed he brought back Big Ten football. He did not.

** The intensity was not kept.

Sadly, as Labor Day weekend drew closer the labor movement in CFB started to lose steam. Across Southeastia, the Big 12 and ACC commenced their “diseasons” to varying levels of success. The SEC was poised to begin later in September. There were rumblings in Northwesternland of a return to the gridiron. We all asked if they would actually come back? How could they? Why?

They did come back. There was much rejoicing in the streets of Claytravistan.

But not because of the alliance between the government of Claytravistan and the White House.

Not because the players #WantedToPlay; we are still nowhere close to a CFB player’s association.

This was a 100% inevitability. For the Big Ten’s entire history, it has tried to pretend it is different than the other power 5 conferences. It’s a lie that they have convinced themselves of so fully that a headline read “Big Ten’s decision to play football signals darkest day in conference’s sports history”. The darkest day in history? Really? Not the Larry Nadler case? Or Sandusky? I figured a graduate of Northwesternland’s premier journalistic institution, Northwestern University, would have a better grasp of history, but who am I to judge? 

The Big Ten came back not necessarily for the money, though it helps, but for the same reason the other conferences didn’t cancel. They came back for the same reason your friends convince you to do something dangerous, stupid, and/or scary. They came back essentially because they didn’t want to miss out and feel the backlash of their alumni base.

Now at least three of the conferences that had decided to postpone fall sports have announced they are playing football. You can know it isn’t just for the money because the MAC has decided to play, and that conference as a whole loses money playing football. 

They’re back because no one wants to be too chicken to jump. Even if it’s wrong. Even if it’s stupid.

The Big Ten justified their original decision around player safety. They have returned to play an eight game schedule with no bye weeks. The players had no meaningful power in the decision either way. 

It’s going to be an incredibly conflicting year in which to watch college football.

We should pay the players.