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Was the College Football Season Worth It?

Indiana versus Ohio State on Nov. 21.
Indiana versus Ohio State on Nov. 21.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

The Great Read

Was the College Football Season Worth It?

It brought joy — and revenue. But the full cost will never be tallied.

Indiana versus Ohio State on Nov. 21.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

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On a Friday evening in early August, Kevin Warren logged in to a video call with medical officials from athletic departments around the Big Ten. By then, Warren had been the commissioner of the conference for eight months. Those months had not gone according to plan. He had come from the N.F.L., where his most recent job was chief operating officer for the Minnesota Vikings. The first African-American commissioner of a major college conference, he had almost no experience in college sports. He was regarded as an outsider, a perception he shared. To help overcome that, Warren had intended to hold a town-hall meeting on each of the 14 Big Ten campuses during his first year as commissioner. The conference fielded 350 teams across 28 sports, and Warren planned to see every one of them in action. When the pandemic hit in early March, he had seen 105 teams play and hosted three town halls. He still barely knew the university presidents and chancellors, who hired him, or the athletic directors. Unlike his predecessor, Jim Delany, whose tenure as commissioner lasted three decades, Warren had no particular friends or allies among either group. And now he faced one of the most consequential decisions in conference history: Should the Big Ten play football in 2020?

Just two days earlier, the conference announced that it would proceed with a 10-game schedule for each team; their seasons would start as early as the first weekend of September. But the medical officials remained uneasy. As soon as Warren started hearing from them on Friday, he realized that the unease had turned to panic. The weekly RT-PCR coronavirus tests that the athletic departments were giving to athletes, coaches and staff members were almost unerringly accurate, but they needed to be outsourced for processing. By the time each round of results came back, days later, a defensive lineman shedding the virus might have infected half the team. Each positive test meant hours of contact tracing, much of which had to be done by an athletic department’s doctors and trainers.

Even more troubling, concerns about myocarditis had started to surface around the country. An inflammation usually caused by a viral infection, it can in rare instances lead to cardiac arrest. Several Big Ten athletes had struggled with heart problems after contracting Covid-19, including one Indiana football player who was rushed to the emergency room. Some doctors on the call told Warren that they weren’t comfortable starting a season until the relationship between the conditions was better understood. One mentioned the Hippocratic oath.

ImageOhio State players taking the field in Columbus.
Ohio State players taking the field in Columbus.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

Afterward, Warren knelt on the floor and prayed for guidance. He had spent months wrestling with this issue, talking with the conference’s athletic directors and presidents on separate calls almost daily. As a group, the athletic directors were in favor of proceeding. The presidents remained unsure, but when infection rates declined during the summer and states eased restrictions, they had agreed to give the season a try.

Now that decision might need to be reversed. And the stakes couldn’t be higher: The Big Ten is not just any collegiate athletic conference. Since 1896, when it was formed, its member schools have won or shared 42 national football titles. Its $2.64 billion, six-year rights deal with Fox Sports, ESPN and CBS, signed in 2017, is the largest in college sports. The Big Ten brand is such a familiar part of the collegiate landscape that even as the conference expanded to 14 members, it kept its name.

Warren was in charge of protecting all that, while making sure that he wasn’t contributing to a national crisis. On Saturday, he convened a call of the conference’s presidents and chancellors. He urged them to consult with the doctors on their campuses and hear their concerns. “He was spooked by myocarditis,” says Bruce Harreld, the president of the University of Iowa. “And that was then picked up by some of the presidents who have medical backgrounds. And they said: ‘Hey, this is really serious. This is more serious than Covid-19. And we don’t know a damn thing about it.'”

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Kevin Warren, the Big Ten commissioner, at the conference’s championship football game, between Northwestern and Ohio State, on Dec. 19 in Indianapolis.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

When Warren spoke with the athletic directors, however, most didn’t seem alarmed. Gene Smith of Ohio State assured Warren that his department already was taking precautions, requiring athletes who had recovered from the infection to be cleared through M.R.I.s and electrocardiograms before they could resume activity. “We’d known about myocarditis for weeks,” Smith told me recently. He felt that Warren was overreacting. “You put the doctors on a call at 7:30 p.m. after a long week, what are you going to hear?” In Smith’s opinion, a Friday night was the worst time all week to have that kind of conversation. “And that was where it started,” he says. “That’s the epicenter of the whole thing.”

As it happened, Smith’s university was the only one without a representative on Warren’s Saturday call with the presidents. Ohio State’s incoming president, Kristina Johnson, who had been hired away from the State University of New York system and was scheduled to start on Sept. 1, had been traveling. Johnson, whose grandfather played football for Ohio State in the 1890s, is both an engineer and a former college athlete, a helpful background when considering whether to hold a football season during a pandemic. Sunday evening, when Warren again convened the presidents, he made sure Johnson was on the call.

It soon became clear to Johnson that the prevailing opinion was to shut down football. Most of the presidents saw a strong possibility that Covid-related medical issues would lead the other major conferences to postpone their seasons. Being the first among them would give the Big Ten an opportunity to demonstrate leadership. On most campuses, too, thousands of students would arrive during the coming week, creating complex logistical issues well beyond those posed by athletics. Several presidents thought football was taking up too much of their time. “I was convinced we could get to something that was workable,” Johnson says. “But, you know, different people come to that conclusion at different times. It’s not enough for Ohio State to want to play. We’ve got to have someone to play against.”

Morton Schapiro of Northwestern pointed out that the decisions of the conference’s presidents were typically presented as unanimous. Still, Johnson asked for a formal vote. Warren scheduled that vote for Tuesday, urging the presidents to find time to discuss the issue with their athletic directors. That gave Johnson hope. But by that point, Iowa’s Harreld says, “the train had left the station, and there was nothing she could do about it.”

On Tuesday, Aug. 11, just six days after the Big Ten confirmed that there would be a 2020 football season, its presidents voted to postpone play indefinitely. The tally was 11 to 3, with Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio State objecting. “There’s no denying that the athletic directors had a different perspective,” Robert Jones, the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me later. “It was very clear that the left hand and the right hand weren’t having the same conversation.”

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Ohio State and Northwestern at the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis on Dec. 19.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

Gene Smith was among the athletic directors who were angriest with the decision. On a call with Warren and the other athletic directors afterward, Smith insisted that they should have been consulted by the presidents as a group long before any vote was taken. In the 15 years he had been a part of the Big Ten, he said, that was the way it worked when big decisions had to be made. And anyone who believed that the other conferences would follow the Big Ten’s lead and open-endedly suspend their seasons was mistaken. “I was animated,” Smith told me. “I said: ‘That’s crazy. There’s no way those other leagues are shutting down.’I was really frustrated with the process. Frustrated that we didn’t have a chance to address the concerns. Because there’s no doubt in my mind that when those concerns were ultimately shared with us, we could have solved almost all of them within five days.”

Smith carried a lot of weight in the conference. During his tenure, Ohio State had emerged as the Big Ten’s marquee member. It had won nine conference titles in football and a national championship, in 2015. Its men’s basketball team had won five conference championships and reached two Final Fours. Smith had worked under four Ohio State presidents. Along the way, he had acquired widespread influence on campus, as well as the title of senior executive vice president and a salary of $1.6 million.

Soon after universities switched to remote instruction and students dispersed across the country in March, Smith started thinking about how to get his athletes back on campus. He says he figured that they would be safer at Ohio State, which has a leading regional medical center, than they would be at home in towns and cities where the level of care was variable, social distancing might go unenforced and even the existence of the virus could be called into question. In May, Smith was able to get a plan approved by Ohio State’s Covid task force. On June 9, football players began voluntary workouts on campus. No more than nine were allowed to practice together. Temperatures were taken frequently; locker rooms remained closed. “We were constantly teaching them: ‘Wash your hands. Wear face masks. Put yourself in a bubble; everyone you interact with could have the virus,'” Smith says. Still, a return to actual competition seemed remote. “I didn’t see how it could happen,” he says.

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Cardboard cutouts at Ohio Stadium.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

In the weeks that followed, he changed his mind. He watched the N.B.A. and the N.H.L. resume their seasons. He canvassed colleagues around the country. He heard from members of the football team, nearly all of whom wanted to play — and also from their parents, who were even more insistent that a season should happen. That impressed Smith, who assumed that their instincts would be to keep their sons out of harm’s way. The Big Ten extends across 11 states from New Jersey to Nebraska, and the virus was affecting its states unevenly. Gradually, though, a consensus emerged among the athletic directors that a schedule limited to games between conference teams could be possible.

The athletic directors also understood that the financial ramifications of not playing football could be calamitous. In 2019, Ohio State athletics earned around $230 million. More than $185 million of that came from football. Like most intercollegiate sports teams around the country, nearly all of the Big Ten’s varsity teams are forced to rely on that football revenue to survive. At Ohio State, the only sport besides football that pays its way fully is men’s basketball. At Arizona State, where Smith ran the athletic department before moving to Columbus, the profitable sports were football and baseball. “Somewhere else, it might be hockey,” he says. “But it’s always football. Football is the engine.”

Without fans at football games, paying for tickets and parking and hot dogs, much of that income would be irretrievably lost. If the games weren’t played, the far greater television income would be lost, too. Across the conference, the ramifications already were being felt. Iowa started the year with 24 sports. “Twenty-one of them were underwater,” Harreld told me. “Football was subsidizing them.” By mid-August, the athletic department decided that four sports at Iowa had to be cut. Those turned out to be men’s gymnastics, men’s tennis and men’s and women’s swimming and diving. At Minnesota, three men’s sports were discontinued: gymnastics, tennis and indoor track. Without the $400 million or so that conference members were due to receive from the Big Ten’s broadcast partners in 2020 in football rights alone, more teams would surely be eliminated.

Smith had an additional incentive to make sure this particular season took place. At the end of last season, the Buckeyes lost to Clemson in a national semifinal. Most of that game’s starters, notably the junior quarterback Justin Fields, a Heisman Trophy candidate, were back for another year. This Ohio State team, Smith was certain, had the potential to win another national title. That would help not just Ohio State but all of the Big Ten athletic programs, which share postseason football revenue. “I remember saying on one of the calls, ‘Look, at Ohio State, one of the reasons we’re pushing — it’s so hard to put this type of team together,'” he says. ” ‘We have a unique opportunity. Now, at the end of the day, they might not get there. But they deserve a chance, if we can figure out how to do this.’ And no one disagreed.”

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Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

A torrent of public criticism was directed at Kevin Warren in the aftermath of the decision to suspend the season. Whether this represented a majority of fans, or only the loudest ones, Warren made an easy target: an inexperienced commissioner new to college football who presided over the shutdown of one of the most visible bastions of Midwestern tradition. No football season meant the cancellation of rivalry games, like the Little Brown Jug (Michigan versus Minnesota) and the Old Oaken Bucket (Indiana versus Purdue), that had been played for a century or more.

In reality, of course, Warren didn’t cancel anything — he didn’t have that authority. But the presidents kept the specifics of their vote confidential, probably because nobody wanted to be on the record opposing football. As a result, speculation persisted that Warren made a unilateral decision. It also didn’t escape notice that his son, Powers Warren, played wide receiver at Mississippi State, a Southeastern Conference university that would soon be starting its season. “Isn’t it ironic,” said the Fox Sports radio personality Clay Travis, “that the Big Ten commissioner’s own son has an opportunity to decide whether or not to play college football, and that that is a decision that is not,” as he put it, given to Big Ten athletes to make about their fall sports.

Echoing the fans and columnists were coaches, players and parents. In a video news conference the day after the decision was announced, Ryan Day, Ohio State’s head football coach, struggled to contain his emotion. As with other programs around the county, Day and his athletes had devoted long hours to preparing for a season in difficult circumstances, paying strict attention to a Covid-19 protocol that included showering in their rooms and avoiding all unnecessary social contact. Suddenly, that season had been swept out from under them. “You don’t just wake up the next morning and everything’s fine,” Day said. “It’s not fine. It’s devastating.” Fields, Ohio State’s quarterback, posted an online petition requesting the immediate reinstatement of the conference’s 2020 schedule. By the next day, it had 250,000 signatures. Eight Nebraska football players filed a lawsuit against the Big Ten, criticizing the process by which the season was postponed as “flawed and ambiguous.” A group calling itself Big 10 Parents United publicized an open letter addressed to Warren expressing “a total lack of confidence” in his leadership. Warren’s response to the criticism emphasized that the conference’s presidents had voted and that the result was “overwhelmingly in support of postponing fall sports.” The vote, he insisted, would not be revisited.

On the last day of August, Timothy Pataki, an aide to President Trump, called Warren on his cellphone. The president wanted to speak with him the following morning, Pataki told him. There was little doubt what he wanted to say. “Disgraceful that Big Ten is not playing football,” Trump tweeted two days earlier. “Let them PLAY.” After Pataki’s call, Warren prepared for his conversation with the president. “Keep an open mind,” his wife, Greta, said.

Trump’s motivation was easy to decipher. There was a good chance that the coming election would be decided in the Big Ten’s heartland; Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, each of which had at least one conference member, were all considered swing states. If Trump could persuade the Big Ten to play a football season, or even appear to have done so, his electoral prospects were likely to benefit. He hadn’t said a word about the Pac-12, which also had decided to postpone its season. But California, Oregon and Washington, where that conference is centered, are solidly blue.

The morning of Sept. 1, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases across America passed six million, the White House called Warren and put Trump on the line. The conversation lasted 15 minutes. Trump offered to give whatever help he could to resurrect the Big Ten’s season. Warren responded that he would be in touch if he needed anything. “On the one yard line!” Trump tweeted later that morning.

They weren’t that close. But despite Warren’s insistence that the decision was final, the conference’s position had in fact started to shift. In the days after the vote that stopped the season, Warren created a Return to Competition Task Force, which included subcommittees devoted to medical issues, scheduling and television. That put presidents like Samuel Stanley of Michigan State, an infectious-disease specialist, on the same calls with athletic directors and doctors. (In retrospect, Warren admits, this was probably something he should have done months earlier.) The task force was meant to help lead the conference toward a decision to play the 2020 football season eventually — perhaps starting in January, or in the spring, when the championships of most other intercollegiate sports, the ones staged by the N.C.A.A., would be contested.

As it happened, the task force moved things along more rapidly than that. Over the last two weeks of August, the doctors discussed using newly available antigen testing in conjunction with the PCR tests. While antigen tests are less reliable, results are available in less than half an hour, which substantially reduces the labor involved in contact tracing. They were also more readily obtainable in bulk, so athletic departments would be able to administer them to players and coaches almost daily, rather than once or twice a week. During that time, too, the doctors helped gain access to cardiac M.R.I. machines for several of the athletic departments that hadn’t been able to use them. This meant that players across the entire conference who were recovering from Covid-19 could be tested for heart inflammation, greatly reducing the risk that anyone who developed myocarditis would return to action too soon

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Kristina Johnson, president of Ohio State.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times
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Gene Smith, Ohio State’s athletic director.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

On Sept. 8, legislators from six states with Big Ten schools asked Warren to reconsider the postponement of football. It wasn’t fair to players with professional aspirations, they wrote, adding that “our local universities stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars that support vital student scholarships.” A Nebraska state senator, Julie Slama, also sent a letter, which included the signatures of 27 colleagues. “Five weeks ago, conference leaders released updated and enhanced testing, quarantine and isolation policies,” it read. “These efforts have been successful at preventing the spread of Covid-19, yet the conference disregarded this success by canceling the fall season anyway.” The Big Ten’s response was an unsigned statement that said it would continue to look for opportunities “to resume competition as soon as it is safe to do so.” That seemed to nudge the door open.

Simultaneously, the medical subcommittee was concluding that a season could, in fact, be held safely. After it presented its findings to some members of the task force, the presidents now saw a way out. On Sept. 16, they announced that a unanimous vote had authorized a limited schedule for the fall.

The plan called for teams to play nine games in nine weeks, from the weekend of Oct. 24 straight through to the conference’s championship game on Dec. 19. To the athletic directors, who felt that cancellations were inevitable, scheduling games for nine consecutive weeks gave them no room to maneuver. They lobbied to start a week or two earlier. But the number of Covid cases nationally had started to rise after Labor Day, a second wave of infection that many experts had forecast. Based on what turned out to be a faulty assumption, Harreld says, the presidents figured that the infection rate would peak in the coming weeks, then fall again. So the later the conference waited to start playing football, they calculated, the safer the games were likely to be.

Any team that managed to complete just six games would be eligible to play for the conference championship. That sounded like an achievable number, though nobody could predict how often teams would reach the benchmarks established by the medical subcommittee — a test positivity rate of over 5 percent and a population positivity rate of over 7.5 percent — that would prompt a temporary shutdown. But these were details. The headline was what mattered: Big Ten football was back.

Trump took credit. “By the way, I brought back Big Ten football,” he said during his debate with Joe Biden on Sept. 29. Nobody else seemed too concerned about how it happened, just that the Big Ten, as a columnist in Madison’s Wisconsin State Journal wrote, “swallowed its pride, reversed its field and ended up where it should have been all along.”

But there were also discordant notes from those who felt that the conference was caving to economic and political pressure. “Just as the Big Ten was looking smarter by the day as Covid-19 outbreaks popped up at Michigan State, Wisconsin and Maryland,” the sports columnist Christine Brennan wrote in USA Today, “the league’s presidents reversed themselves and decided to steer their schools and their football programs right into the teeth of what are predicted to be some of the worst days of the pandemic.”

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A bar near the Ohio State campus.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

This is precisely what happened. By accident of geography, and some questionable decisions by state officials, the Upper Midwest became the flash point for the coronavirus in late October, right around when Big Ten football finally started. That meant games began drawing fans together in bars and living rooms around the region at exactly the time that every rational infectious-disease specialist was desperately trying to keep them apart. The graph of coronavirus numbers veered upward in Ohio during November, gradually and then precipitously. Only three weeks would pass between the first incidence of more than 3,000 confirmed daily infections and the unfathomable milestone of more than 10,000. “Enjoy Ohio State Football While It Lasts,” read one headline in The Columbus Dispatch.

On the first Saturday in November, as headlines across the country were noting the record numbers of coronavirus cases, I went to see the Buckeyes play Rutgers. The only spectators in the stands were the teams’ families. Ohio Stadium has a seating capacity of 102,780, so the emptiness felt cavernous. It made me wonder where all those people who would have been there had gone instead.

By early in the second quarter, Fields had thrown for one touchdown and run for another. With nine minutes left in the first half, he rolled to his right, found a receiver in the end zone and flicked a pass for a third touchdown. During a different autumn, Fields might have been solidifying his case for a Heisman Trophy, and Ohio State would be burnishing a No.1 ranking. But because of the conference’s late start, the Rutgers game was only Ohio State’s third of the season. By then, other top teams around the nation had played as many as seven.

The week the season resumed, the mayors of 11 of the 14 Big Ten cities wrote to the conference expressing their concern that football games would encourage people to congregate. “It’s a normal tradition on game day that you watch with other people,” Dr. Mysheika Roberts, the health commissioner for Columbus, told me. “And we’ve seen our cases go up. Since the first game, our cases have exploded.” When we spoke the week I visited Columbus, Roberts seemed confident that Ohio State’s football players could remain safe. They were motivated by both the carrot of being able to continue playing and the stick of a season potentially shut down if they helped foment an outbreak. She was less optimistic about Buckeye fans around the city and across Ohio. “We’re trying to change the behavior of all those people,” she said. “But what’s their motivation?”

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Ohio State and Northwestern during the Big Ten championship game.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

At halftime, I left Ohio Stadium and headed to a party on West Lane Avenue, a few blocks from campus. By the time I arrived, Fields had thrown for another touchdown; I saw the replay on a television that someone had carried out to the lawn. At the time of the Rutgers game, the incidence of positive tests in Columbus approached 11 percent. Private gatherings were capped at 10 people. But these fans seemed to have created an exemption for themselves. Perhaps 50 people were gathered outside the multiunit brick building, which housed mostly students. Plastic cups of beer were being distributed from a wooden table. Nobody I saw wore a mask.

When Ohio State’s season finally started, several students told me, it was as though the party animals had been released from their cages. Football, said Kaleigh Murphy, a sophomore I talked with, “gave people a reason to get up on a Saturday and go to a frat and start drinking.” For Murphy, part of Ohio State’s allure was the spectacle of a football weekend. During the previous season, her group of friends would gather in the stadium parking lot before home games. Maybe they would eventually go in, maybe they wouldn’t. With no fans permitted this season, they moved their festivities elsewhere. “If people aren’t going to parties,” she said, “they’re at the bars.”

Later that night, I drove to the Short North neighborhood near downtown. At Seesaw, a restaurant and bar on the corner of East First Avenue and High Street, I saw revelers partying as though 2020 had never happened. There were five televisions on the ground floor and more upstairs. The bar was crowded with patrons, one for nearly every seat. Most seemed to be shouting. Two were kissing in a corner. Five were jammed around a table meant for four, playing a drinking game. Only the bartenders wore masks. It was Saturday night. “A football Saturday night,” the bouncer checking IDs at the door said.

Two days later, on Monday, Ohio’s 9,750 new coronavirus cases broke its existing record by more than 1,500. The state’s governor, Mike DeWine, addressed the crisis. He described the virus as a “runaway freight train.” He asked families to scale back their plans for the coming holiday season. Yet in terms of the impact across the state, every Ohio State game might as well have been its own Thanksgiving, just with different catering. DeWine was clearly mindful of the popularity of the Buckeyes among his constituents, which may explain why he wasn’t willing to try to curtail those weekly gatherings. When I asked him about it, his answer was blunt: “I can’t impact who you have over to eat pizza and watch the Ohio State game.”

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Ohio State students.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

The novel coronavirus canceled Wimbledon and the New York Marathon in 2020, and it pushed the Olympics to the following summer. It gave fans the Masters in November, a Stanley Cup in Canada between two American teams, an N.F.L. draft from the commissioner’s basement, a World Series at a neutral site and an N.B.A. final at Walt Disney World. The college football season has been equally chaotic. Some weeks, nearly a quarter of the games in the five major conferences were postponed or canceled (and in one week, almost half of the games did not get played). One Saturday, Nov. 13, three of the top five teams couldn’t play. Outbreaks altered schedules only hours before games. Instead of Florida on Oct. 24, Missouri found itself facing Kentucky. When the University of California and U.C.L.A. had games canceled early the same week in November, they decided to play each other. The University of Southern California’s percentage of positive tests meant that it wasn’t able to host its Pac-12 opponent Colorado, so San Diego State, which plays in a different conference, traveled to Boulder instead. And when all 20 of the offensive linemen on the University of Washington’s roster were judged unable to participate because of Covid-19, the team, which had won the Pac-12’s northern division, forfeited the right to play for the conference title. The second-place team, Oregon, took its place.

The most prominent college athlete of the moment, the Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, had helped organize the #WeWantToPlay movement over the summer, proclaiming on a video call with reporters, “We’re all adults making decisions for ourselves.” In late October, he contracted the coronavirus and was unavailable for a showdown against Notre Dame. That game played out as an overtime thriller — and Clemson’s first regular-season loss in three years. Alabama’s coach, Nick Saban, tested positive twice, a month apart (erroneously the first time, in October). Ohio State’s Day learned of his own positive test the same week as Saban’s true positive, meaning that two of the best teams in America spent Saturday, Dec. 4, on the field while their quarantined head coaches watched on television miles away.

The Buckeyes performed as Smith had hoped during the summer, when he was exploring every way to give this team an opportunity to chase a title. As Thanksgiving approached, they were undefeated and ranked No.3 in the country. But they had already missed one game: on Nov. 13, following a surge of infections at Maryland, that week’s opponent. Two weeks later, Day and an undisclosed number of players tested positive, the team’s first outbreak of the season. With only four games played, Ohio State needed to get in at least two of the three left on its schedule to qualify for the conference final. Though its percentages of positive tests didn’t quite exceed the allowable limits, Smith knew that a weekend of airports and locker rooms was likely to spread the virus among players and staff members. And the Big Ten protocol, which is stricter than that of most other conferences, dictated that any player testing positive would be unable to compete for three weeks.

Ohio State chose to cancel that week’s game at Illinois and shut down practices, putting anyone suspected of carrying the virus into quarantine until more of the definitive PCR tests could be processed. It was safer for the Buckeye players, Smith told me — and safer for the Illinois players. And in terms of his team’s ultimate success, it was clearly smarter to sacrifice one game and be able to play the next two than risk an outbreak. “That was certainly part of the decision-making process,” he says. “You’ve got to look at the big picture.”

The following Saturday, the Buckeyes walloped Michigan State. Based on their lead in the conference standings, they would get a chance at another Big Ten title even if they somehow lost to Michigan the next Saturday. All they had to do was play the game. But that Tuesday, without warning, Michigan announced that it had too many positive tests. For the first time in more than a century, its game with Ohio State was off. “The worst possible scenario,” Smith says.

Without playing Michigan, Ohio State wouldn’t have enough games to qualify for the conference final. But then Purdue announced its own unacceptably high infection rates that afternoon, which would lead to the cancellation of its game with Indiana. That bad fortune seemed serendipitous for the Buckeyes. Now that Indiana didn’t have a game to play that Saturday, it could conceivably take Michigan’s place. Because Ohio State and Indiana had played each other earlier in the year, the coaches of each team could prepare for the game on short notice. And for Ohio State, beating the nationally ranked Hoosiers again would be more impressive than beating a mediocre Michigan team. That mattered because the Buckeyes, who had played only five games, still needed to impress the committee that would be choosing the national playoff teams. It would be another example of the sort of creative thinking that had come to characterize this season (and, to some, rendered it all but illegitimate).

Except later that evening, Indiana also reported a surge in positive tests and announced that it was ending all football activity for the week. On a video call with Warren the next morning, the athletic directors had to decide what to do.

In 1974, when he was 10, Warren was riding his bike on a sidewalk when a car jumped the curb and hit him. He lay in a body cast for months. When he recovered, he was told that he was unlikely ever to play competitive sports. His only hope was a daily workout regimen in a swimming pool, but there wasn’t a public pool within miles. So he persuaded his parents to use part of the $30,000 he won in a civil suit against the driver, money earmarked for his college tuition, to build a pool in their tiny backyard. Early each morning, Warren did hydrotherapy exercises that he devised himself. He did them again after school and at night. At 17, he was playing basketball for the University of Pennsylvania. The experience convinced him that, with perseverance, almost anything was possible. It also imbued him with an almost preternatural calm. “When you add it all up, I’m not supposed to be here,” he says. “Anything short of that, I can handle it.”

By December, Warren had been running these meetings for nearly a year, more than 150 of them with the athletic directors alone. As he grew to better understand the institution he inherited, he figured out how to be a more effective leader. He also had developed working relationships with all the athletic directors, including Smith. Within an hour, they reached an agreement to overturn their own rule requiring a six-game minimum and allow Ohio State to play for the conference title. This time, the crisis lasted less than a day.

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Craig Young, Justin Hilliard and Mitchell Melton, linebackers for Ohio State, after winning the Big Ten championship.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

On Dec. 19 in Indianapolis, Ohio State met Northwestern for the Big Ten championship. It had all the trappings of a big game, if you were watching on television. There were player introductions and portentous music, and the producers laid on the soundtrack with a heavy touch — to supply all the noise that a crowd limited to 1,600 spectators wasn’t making. For much of the afternoon, the Buckeyes didn’t look like one of the best teams in the country, but ultimately they pulled away and won, 22-10. Fields didn’t have one of his better performances, but Trey Sermon, a senior running back, broke Ohio State’s single-game record by carrying the ball for 331 yards, 271 of them in the second half.

The next day, the Buckeyes would be selected to participate in the College Football Playoff tournament, matched up against Clemson on New Year’s Day. A win then would lead to a championship game against either Alabama or Notre Dame on Jan. 11. In other words, they were just two wins from the national title Smith had envisioned. For the Big Ten, a season that started with such rancor had reached what could only be seen as a successful conclusion — the conference had a team in the semifinals and a $6 million payout to distribute to its members. “Great day,” Warren texted me.

Given the enormous size and importance of college football as a business, with a greater reach and a broader audience than most professional sports enjoy, plenty of stakeholders had an interest in keeping games on TV every week, even as the number of coronavirus cases surged through athletic departments all over the country. But those games were also providing a vestige of familiarity to undergraduates struggling through the strangest of all semesters. “It’s kind of like a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel,” Kaleigh Murphy, the Ohio State sophomore, explained to me near the end of the season. “It helps you realize that we’re going to have a normal life back soon.” Throughout the fall, Johnson held a weekly video call with Ohio State students who had been exiled to a local hotel after testing positive for the virus. “Almost every session, there’s at least one who said, ‘Thank you for bringing back football,'” she told me. “And then you saw everybody else nodding and clapping. So it’s a big deal.”

Some fans refused to watch games this fall because the entire season felt fraudulent. Others were outraged that a sport was needlessly putting college students at risk. If you did happen to follow along, though, you were rewarded with the usual quotient of memorable performances, like Sermon in that Big Ten title game, getting nudged and bumped but refusing to fall until he gained yet more yards. Without the vote allowing the conference to have a season, of course, his glorious afternoon never would have happened. And the stars and scrubs who fill out the conference’s rosters wouldn’t have been able to spend their Saturdays competing, which is what they had been asking to do. Across the Midwest too, those Big Ten games surely brought joy and communion at a time when both were in short supply.

But the cost for that will never be tallied. How many of those Saturday afternoons spent watching football games with friends bear some responsibility for the 100,000 confirmed Covid-related deaths around America since the first snap of a Big Ten game this season? And because we’re still learning about this novel virus, the damage it wreaked on hundreds of players may not become evident for years. The lasting effects of the 2020 college season are unknowable — and for some percentage of Americans, they are beside the point. Eventually, even the most circumspect of fans will return to congregate in bars and living rooms. And the next time a quarterback in Ohio Stadium takes a snap and rolls out while looking toward the end zone, the voices of a hundred thousand spectators will shout as one.

Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to the magazine. He last wrote about the return of German soccer during the pandemic. Devin Yalkin is a photographer based in New York who has covered a diverse range of subjects for the magazine, including dirt-track racing, live music and basketball on Montana’s Flathead Indian reservation.

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