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Big Ten and Pac-12: Conference Communications Catastrophe

Published on September 14, 2020, at 10:15 p.m.
by Bailey Broughton.

In college towns across America, students are undergoing thorough testing, screening and preventive measures to help combat the spread of COVID-19 on campuses. Some campuses, however, are primarily concerned about one implication of this pandemic: the threat it poses to college football. Athletic conferences have responded to this pandemic and communicated with their key publics differently, ensuring that there is no blanket policy or procedure established by the National Collegiate Athletic Association for schools and their teams to follow. Ultimately, just days out from the start of the season, the fate of the 2020 college football season is still unknown due to two conferences’ failure to communicate effectively.

Regarding the pandemic, the NCAA has contributed subminimally to the process of making college football happen safely. According to its website, as of Sept. 10 the NCAA had only released a modified time frame in which the games must be played, stating that the season would start on Aug. 29 and end on Dec. 19 of 2020. Individual team scheduling decisions were left to their respective conferences, with some opting to play an all-in-conference schedule, such as the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference.

Photo by Dave Adamson on Unsplash

The Big Ten and Pac-12 were the first power five conferences to make a decision about the 2020 season. Both of these major conferences made the controversial decision to postpone their seasons altogether in hopes of playing in the spring instead, and they were not met with understanding feedback. In an article written by Yesh Ginsburg for USA Today titled “Opinion: Big Ten jumps gun by canceling the season, displays lack of leadership”, the Big Ten is criticized for the timing of its decision, which didn’t make any sense to its large audience of fans who were hoping for a college football season. The Big Ten and Pac-12 announced this decision on Aug. 11, before many students had returned to campus and the situation had been adequately assessed, which led the audience of fans and critics to believe the conferences jumped the gun.

To add to the pain of losing the football season so early, according to the Ohio Department of Health, positivity rates indicate that cases in Big Ten schools were relatively low compared to schools of similar size in the SEC and ACC, each of which still plans to play football within the designated season.

So, how is this sequence of events considered “bad practices” in communication strategies?

As a public relations student, I have known since my introductory classes not to speak “just because,” but rather when you have something of substance to convey to your audience. The Big Ten has been accused by many of postponing the season so early in an attempt to be politically correct, and disregarding the best interest of the student-athletes. In other words, many believe its representatives were talking just to talk. To prove this accusation credible, now, a week out from the start of the season, legislators are begging the Big Ten schools to reconsider their decision to forgo playing in the fall, since the situation has been assessed and the threat is minimal with only three schools reaching 6% positivity rates as of Sept. 9, 2020. The school presidents met Sunday, Sept. 13, but haven’t released information about that meeting or details regarding a decision.

Photo by Ameer Basheer on Unsplash

Another aspect that both the Big Ten and Pac-12 failed to consider is that their audience is composed of much more than just fans. The Big Ten conference is also responsible for school and athlete communications, which failed miserably. Schools and coaches within the conference itself were shocked by the decision, and were not given substantial rationale to justify the postponement. Athletes whose livelihoods and well-being revolve around playing football in the fall were hardly considered in the decision, and responded to the conferences’ decisions by starting the hashtag #LetUsPlay.

Arguably, the athletes are the most important audience for these conferences to consider. They are the source of revenue, after all. However, they were treated as disposable. Aside from viral trends like the above hashtag, athletes’ resistance to the decision has been low but has the potential to increase as they watch their colleagues in other conferences play out their seasons successfully. From a purely communications standpoint, the Big Ten and Pac-12 have upset their most important audience, and are likely to suffer in recruiting and player relations because of it. After all, athletes want to go to schools where they know they will play.

As an avid sports fan and emerging public relations professional, I believe this failed communication was caused by an inexcusable lack of leadership. Nobody wanted to be responsible for deciding to play this season in case things turned awry, so instead they made a decision, unsubstantiated by data, that they believed would please the most people. There was nobody to make any tough calls, nor any creative minds lobbying for an alternative to simple postponement.

Due to the lack of leadership, the premature communication and the failure to consider athletes as an important audience, the fate of the Big Ten and Pac-12’s season is uncertain. While the Big Ten considers voting to restore the season, players and fans are left in limbo. Additionally, how this decision and what the Pac-12 may ultimately do will affect the College Football Playoff to determine the national champion is unknown, since 22 teams may be absent from the running this year.

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