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Carlson: Why Big 12 believes playing is safer option for athletes' health

The Big 12 announced Wednesday it was moving forward with fall sports. OU and OSU, seen running onto the field at Boone Pickens Stadium before a home game in 2015, are slated to play their season openers Sept. 12. [SARAH PHIPPS/THE OKLAHOMAN]
The Big 12 announced Wednesday it was moving forward with fall sports. OU and OSU, seen running onto the field at Boone Pickens Stadium before a home game in 2015, are slated to play their season openers Sept. 12. [SARAH PHIPPS/THE OKLAHOMAN]

Bob Bowlsby knows the coronavirus is dangerous.

Lest you believe the Big 12 commissioner has failed to grasp the severity of the virus because his conference has released a football schedule and decided to charge ahead with fall sports, rest assured he understands the risks of COVID-19. It can make people extremely sick and land them in the hospital. It can cause long-term problems, and of course, it can kill.

Bowlsby isn’t just aware of those risks.

He’s worried about them, too.

He said as much during a Wednesday teleconference with reporters. But in speaking on behalf of the presidents and chancellors from the schools in his league, he also said something that will surely stun some folks — the Big 12 believes not playing this fall would be a bigger health risk to players.

“We just believe that there are ways to make sure that our student-athletes are safe, that they have an array of options and that we do everything we can to create and provide a safe environment,” Bowlsby said. “We want to make sure that they are no more likely to be exposed and infected by the virus in a sports environment than they are in any other environment in society.”

But here’s the money quote.

“It’s the belief of our doctors that we can put our student-athletes in a situation where they are less likely to be affected under supervision and surveillance and testing than they would be if thereby were in the general population.”

Did you see what Bowlsby said there?

Less likely to be affected.

As college sports world tries to understand how the Big 12 decided to move ahead with fall sports on the same day the Big Ten and Pac-12 decided to shut them down, there is your answer.

The Big 12 came to the conclusion that playing is safer than not playing, by the way, on the advice of a team of medical experts. Bowlsby rattled off the names of several doctors and scientists the league’s decision-makers have regularly leaned on during the pandemic, and Tuesday night when the university leaders convened, they heard presentations from a couple before having a wide-ranging discussion.

At the end, they decided they can give athletes who are in-season a safer environment than if they weren’t practicing and playing.

To that end, the Big 12 added some enhanced protocols related to the coronavirus.

Players who are participating in high-contact sports — football, volleyball and soccer in the fall — will now be tested three times a week. That is a significant increase from the once-a-week testing now being done around the conference.

And if athletes test positive, they must not only test negative before returning to competition but also undergo a battery of tests meant to detect underlying issues caused by COVID-19. They’ll do an EKG, a troponin blood test, an echocardiogram and a cardiac MRI. If the virus has damaged their heart, those tests will detect it.

Such testing is something most college students won’t be getting. If you’re a biology major living in Headington Hall or an architecture student living at Bennett Hall, you aren’t getting tested three times a week for the virus.

And if you are defensive back or a midfielder or an outside hitter not playing, you aren’t getting tested that much either.

So, the Big 12 has come to the belief that having athletes in season is the safest option.

Is it?

We literally have no way of knowing. Yes, we’ve had pandemics before, but we’ve never had one with this specific virus. We have no precedent to lean on. We have no experience to learn from.

Maybe the Big 12 has picked the safer road.

Maybe it hasn't.

We’re about to find out.

Such an answer should make even the most ardent fan squeamish. What we’re saying here is even though we don’t exactly know how this is going to go, we’re going to let players and coaches and all the ancillary personnel be guinea pigs and see how it goes. That’s a stomach-churning thought.

What, then, would the Big 12 say to anyone worried about the risks?

“Well,” Bowlsby said when I asked him that very question Wednesday, “I’d say we’re worried about them, too.”

The conference knows this virus is dangerous, and while other leagues have decided those dangers are too great, the Big 12 has come to the conclusion that playing actually provides athletes more testing, more safeguards, more protection.

Are those calculations right or wrong?

The Big 12 will know soon.

We all will.

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or Like her at or follow her at

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›