Whitmer supports Big Ten decision to play college football, says fans at games still uncertain

Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press

LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday she supports the Big Ten Conference's decision to play college football this fall, but it remains to be seen whether fans will be able to attend large sporting events in Michigan.

"I support the decision that they've made," Whitmer said at a news conference in Lansing.

"It's not my decision to make," said Whitmer, who had earlier expressed support when the Big Ten said it would hold off on football until the spring. She said the universities involved have trusted experts and she believes advances in rapid testing for the virus had given them the confidence to proceed.

The Big Ten announced Wednesday that all 14 teams will play football and are expected to start games the weekend of Oct. 24. The league said the decision to resume play, with a shortened season, was unanimous among the league's presidents and chancellors.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is pictured on Sept. 16, 2020.

More:Big Ten football reinstated; 9-game season to begin Oct. 24

More:Michigan legislators, other lawmakers push Big Ten to play football this fall

The 14 presidents and chancellors indefinitely delayed all fall sports on Aug. 11 due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic and potential health issues for athletes, though some other conferences opted to go ahead with their football seasons.

The conference said there will be no public sale of tickets, though each school can decide whether players' family members can attend. Still, the conference earlier said there would be no fall football at all, so it was not clear whether the announcement regarding ticket sales could also be subject to change.

Asked to assess the prospects for fans attending Big Ten games in Michigan — which would be mostly prohibited under current executive orders — Whitmer said the possibility of spectators at large sporting events was among the subjects she discussed in a conference call with other Midwest governors Tuesday.

It will just depend on the status of the virus, she said.

"If we want to preserve that as an option, we've got to be serious about masking up," she said.

Whitmer's orders limit attendance at outdoor events to 100, except for in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula, where up to 250 people are permitted at outdoor events.

Whitmer said "everyone is tired of COVID-19," and she would like to return to some normalcy as much as anyone, but Michigan must make sure it does not put in danger the gains from the sacrifices its citizens have already made.

There have been several coronavirus outbreaks around college campuses in Michigan, including Michigan State University in East Lansing, which is a Big Ten school.

MSU has said no tailgating will be permitted outside its football games this year.

After the Big Ten announced it was going to pause fall football, the backlash against commissioner Kevin Warren and Big Ten presidents and chancellors was immediate and strong. It included tweets about the cancellation and a phone call from President Donald Trump to Warren, as well as pressure in the courts, for the league to explain its initial decision.

Whitmer said on MSNBC on Sept. 9 that she agreed with the Big Ten's decision to not play football.

Whitmer said on "Morning Joe" the conference opted against fall football based on "the best epidemiology," and, "I think we've got to respect the decisions they made to keep their student-athletes safe and families safe."

Making college football a political issue "undermines the seriousness of the issue and how critical it is that we follow science and we do what we need to do to protect people," she said.

The governor's comments came after Trump that week said on Twitter the Big Ten could return soon but without the teams from Michigan, Illinois and Maryland, because governors in those states had shown a "ridiculous lack of interest or political support."

Trump took partial credit for the reversal in a Wednesday tweet. "Have a FANTASTIC SEASON!" he said. "It is my great honor to have helped!!!"

One of the biggest changes that league leaders say helped in the decision to resume play is the availability of rapid testing. The Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors in its release announced "daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and an enhanced data-driven approach when making decisions about practice/competition."

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or pegan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter

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