With most Big 12 teams getting ready to play season openers this weekend, Commissioner Bob Bowlsby feels good about where the league is and confident that the best job is being done to ensure the safety of players, coaches and anyone else associated with the games.
But the games that won’t be played this weekend provide a stark reminder of the uncertainty of trying to play a season amid COVID-19.
A virus outbreak will keep TCU from playing its opener against SMU. That game had already been postponed before Oklahoma State announced late Monday that its opener against Tulsa was being pushed back a week, with the opposing Golden Hurricane still recovering from multiple positive tests.
“This is not a time when you can state with any sort of veracity that you’re going to play all of your games,” Bowlsby said Monday. “We could find ourselves in the same situation that the Big Ten and the Pac-12 are in later in the season. I’m not prepared to have any bravado about it whatsoever.”
While the Big Ten, Pac-12 and most lower-level conferences opted not to play this fall, the Big 12 went forward with a reduced 10-game schedule that includes one non-conference game. The ACC this week starts an 11-game schedule that includes one nonconference game, and the SEC plans to open its conference-only 10-game slate Sept. 26.
“We’re just doing what we’re told and we’re taking it slow and we’re making small adjustments, and we’re listening to people that are the best professionals. That’s all we can do,” Bowlsby said. “As of (now), we’re still playing games, and that’s a good thing. But how far down the path that goes is anybody’s guess.”
The season also comes at a time when college athletes across the country have added their voices to calls for an end to racial injustice after a summer of social unrest.
Bowlsby said the Big 12 this week is debuting an anti-racism, anti-hate campaign, and has engaged in conversations with the chief diversity officers from each campus. The league assembled a Black student council with one male and female student-athlete from each school.
Big 12 football teams, at their discretion and with approval from the commissioner, can place a patch with a social justice message on the front of their jerseys. The back of each helmet will have a Big 12 sticker that says “Unity.”
The commissioner also described as an “ongoing topic” some discussions about teams being on the field during the national anthem, which traditionally has not been the case when marching bands were on the field for pregame performances.
“This year will be a little different because on an institution-by-institution basis we’ll be make decisions as to how the anthem is performed,” Bowlsby said. “There’s a fair amount of institutional latitude. … We certainly have the expectation that there will be representations of the feelings of student-athletes in a variety of ways. ”
TCU was supposed to host SMU on Friday night in the league’s first game before of cluster of Horned Frogs players and team support staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus. That announcement last Friday, a week before the scheduled game, came about the same time the league revealed that a minimum 53-player roster would be necessary to play a game, and had to include at least seven offensive linemen, four defensive linemen and one quarterback.
Bowlsby said Monday that he fully expected that the Frogs wouldn’t be the only Big 12 team to have to postpone a game this season. Hours later, Oklahoma State pushed back its scheduled Saturday opener a week to Sept. 19.
Tulsa athletic officials said their team had a nine-day pause because of multiple tests and were limited to seven practices in 17 days after preseason camp opened Aug. 7.
Without going into detail, TCU coach Gary Patterson said Monday that he wasn’t comfortable where his team was in terms of numbers at some position groups. The Horned Frogs and SMU don’t currently have common open dates during the scheduled regular season.
“We wanted to make sure for safety reasons and also to be able to move forward,” Patterson said. “If it was going to happen, something like this, it was better to happen here at the beginning before you got in the middle of the season.”
Texas Tech had about 20 players away from practice at the same time last month after they tested positive for COVID-19, plus an unspecified number of additional players being isolated because of contact with those affected. Three Red Raiders players have opted out of the season.
Second-year Tech coach Matt Wells said he has the typical concerns going into a season opener, along with the additional constant anxiety about the results from thrice-weekly testing.
“You could have major personnel challenges, and hurdles to overcome, or you could have minimal (impact),” Wells said. “Right up until game time, or at least Friday afternoon, I think there’s going to be anxiety among all coaches … tentativeness on exactly who’s playing.”
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