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Big Ten to start its college football season next month

(Reuters) - The Big Ten Conference changed course on Wednesday saying there will be college football this year after having earlier postponed play amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The Big Ten, which includes football powerhouses Ohio State and University of Michigan, said it will begin play the weekend of Oct. 23-24.

Under pressure from student athletes, coaches, politicians and fans to get back on the field the Big Ten joins the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and other conferences along with the National Football League which have already begun play.

From the White House to college campuses, word of the Big Ten’s decision was greeted with cheers even if games are expected to be played without fans in the stadiums.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who had repeatedly pressured the conference to play this fall, welcomed the news.

“Great News: BIG TEN FOOTBALL IS BACK,” tweeted Trump. “All teams to participate. Thank you to the players, coaches, parents, and all school representatives. Have a FANTASTIC SEASON! It is my great honor to have helped!!!”

The Trump campaign hailed the Big Ten’s decision as another sign that the country is reopening safely and life is returning to normal.

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“College football is an enormous part of fall Saturdays for millions of Americans, and it is coming back, thanks in no small part to the leadership of President Trump,” said Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien in a statement.

The Big Ten said decisions on other sports, including men’s and women’s basketball, ice hockey, swimming and diving and wrestling, will be announced shortly.

For many Big Ten supporters like John Lishok, a Penn State fan who has had season tickets for the Nittany Lions for 25 years, the announcement was a case of better late than never.

“Happy it is going forward but the entire process was maddening and delayed,” Lishok told Reuters. “Pressure and criticism, I believe, drove the administrators to revisit the situation especially since other conferences have started playing and games are being televised.

“I still anticipate no fans at games but at least televised games can be watched by our small group of friends together.”

The decision to play is a dramatic change of course for the Big Ten after it postponed the season over health and safety concerns for athletes, with the United States in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed over 195,000 American lives.

FILE PHOTO: Fans attend a protest, staged by parents of Ohio State football players, against the cancelation of the Big Ten Conference's football season due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) concerns outside Ohio State's stadium in Columbus, Ohio, U.S., August 29, 2020. REUTERS/Megan Jelinger

The Big Ten’s return comes at a time when U.S. colleges are seeing a spike in positive cases and infectious disease experts warning of a second wave of COVID-19 to hit this autumn.

Big Ten medical officials, however, said they have put in place significant protocols, including daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and an enhanced data-driven approach when making decisions that will protect players, coaches and staff.

“Our focus with the Task Force over the last six weeks was to ensure the health and safety of our student-athletes,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “Our goal has always been to return to competition so all student-athletes can realize their dream of competing in the sports they love.”

Each school will designate a chief infection officer who will oversee the collection and reporting of data.

Daily testing will begin by Sept. 30. The earliest a student-athlete can return to game competition is 21 days following a positive COVID-19 test.

“Everyone associated with the Big Ten should be very proud of the groundbreaking steps that are now being taken to better protect the health and safety of the student-athletes and surrounding communities,” said Dr. Jim Borchers, head team physician of Ohio State University and co-chair of the Return to Competition Task Force medical subcommittee.

Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker

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