INDIANAPOLIS – Big Ten football made a stunning comeback on Wednesday. It announced it would revive its postponed season on Oct. 23-24.

But the crowds won’t go crazy. The pandemic will keep stadiums mostly empty.

This coincides with the University of Washington’s Health Metrics projected spike in COVID infections in Indiana beginning in late October. If Gov. Eric Holcomb’s mask mandates are discontinued or widely ignored (and there is ample evidence of this around the state), the projections are for increased deaths and hospital resource use that will surpass those of late April and early May during what was thought to be the first wave of the pandemic.

If there is a clear winner in this beyond the highly ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, it is President Trump, who called Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren two weeks ago, urging him to reconsider the decision to postpone the season until the winter or spring of 2021. Through the prism of Trump’s shaky reelection bid, anything resembling a return to normal is to his advantage.

Trump tweeted Wednesday morning: “Great News: BIG TEN FOOTBALL IS BACK. 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!!!”

And his campaign manager, Bill Stephien, said, “This is huge news, not just for college football fans, but for all Americans looking for key indicators that we can reopen our society and our economy, and do so safely. President Trump has been publicly advocating for the Big Ten and other conferences to return to the field, directly engaging with the conference and Commissioner Warren, and it’s a triumph to see the unanimous vote of the member schools to begin the football schedule next month. Important in their decision were the vast progress in same-day coronavirus testing capabilities and improvements in general public health, proving that the President’s unprecedented response to a public health crisis is working.”

ABC News reported the White House offered the Big Ten with enough COVID-19 tests for play to begin. The conference chose a private company.

Polls have shown Trump trailing in key Big Ten states – Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, while he holds a narrow lead in Ohio. Former Indiana Republican legislator Mike Murphy tweeted, “All those liberal university presidents may have just guaranteed Trump’s reelection. Ohio, MN, WI, Mich, PA, all battleground states.”

USA Today columnist Christine Brennan observed, “Just as the Big Ten was looking smarter by the day as COVID-19 outbreaks popped up at Michigan State, Wisconsin and Maryland while other conferences playing football announced COVID-related postponements and soaring cases, the league’s presidents reversed themselves and decided to steer their schools and their football programs right into the teeth of what are predicted to be some of the worst days of the pandemic in October and November.”

Nebraska had a 16.3% positivity rate. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered lockdown at Penn State University. Illinois has had a COVID outbreak of 784 positives; Iowa had more than 1,800 infections. Purdue has quarantined 30 student housing units and IU has quarantined 33 Greek houses, with the university suggesting those students find alternative housing. 

Last weekend, the Virginia-Virginia Tech game in the ACC was postponed due to a COVID outbreak. Defending national champion LSU head coach Ed Orgeron said on Tuesday, “Not all of our players but most of our players have caught it. I think that hopefully they won’t catch it again, and hopefully they’re not out for games.” 

There have been campus COVID outbreaks at North Carolina, North Carolina State, Texas Tech, and Alabama. 

But not many deaths.

Thus, file the Big Ten decision under the topic of “Learning to Live with COVID.” As I’ve stated before, the virus has impacted less than 1% of the population and has killed just a fraction of those. 

As this pandemic stretches beyond its six-month public threshold, the incongruent spectacle was that the Colts in the NFL are playing, as are Hoosier high schools, while Purdue and IU have been idled. 

IU coach Tom Allen acknowledged the elephant on the table, which is recruiting against the three power conferences that decided to forge ahead. “That’s a big concern,” Allen said. “As it stands right now, those three conferences are playing and we’re not.” 

What won’t occur this fall is a return to business as normal at Bloomington, West Lafayette, East Lansing, Madison, Ann Arbor, etc. There will not be stadiums filled to the brim. Each lost home game crowd represents a loss of $5 million to $10 million in local revenue.

According to the Big Ten press release, the conference voted to adopt medical and testing protocols when making decisions going forward on practice and competition for the football programs, which fund a majority of the non-revenue sports that, apparently, will remain sidelined.

“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 at Ohio State. “The data we are going to collect from testing and the cardiac registry will provide major contributions for all 14 Big Ten institutions as they study COVID-19 and attempt to mitigate the spread of the disease among wider communities.”

All 14 universities will designate a “chief infection officer” who will oversee the collection and reporting of data for the Big Ten Conference. Any student-athlete who tests positive for COVID-19 will have to under go extensive testing and must wait 21 days before returning to games. 

“From the onset of the pandemic, our highest priority has been the health and the safety of our students. The new medical protocols and standards put into place by the Big Ten Return To Competition Task Force were pivotal in the decision to move forward with sports in the conference,” said Morton Schapiro, chair of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors and Northwestern University president. “We appreciate the conference’s dedication to developing the necessary safety procedures for our students and the communities that embrace them.”

All of this comes as America grapples with a pandemic over which it has lost control.

During an ABC News town hall with undecided voters Tuesday night, President Trump may have revealed the obvious: He is opting for a herd immunity concept, which could kill hundreds of thousands more Americans.

“Yeah, well, I didn’t downplay it,” he said a week after audio of his interview with author Bob Woodward revealed that he understood the gravity of the pandemic, but opted not to “panic” the public. 

“I actually, in many ways, I up-played it, in terms of action. My action was very strong,” Trump said. “It is going to disappear. It’s going to go away. Like a herd mentality, it’s going to be herd developed.”

Asked by an undecided Pennsylvania female voter why he didn’t mandate masks, Trump responded, “There are a lot of people think that masks are not good.”

Town hall moderator George Stephanopolous interjected, “Who are those people?” Trump responded, “I’ll tell you who those people are – waiters. They come over and they serve you, and they have a mask. And I saw it the other day where they were serving me, and they’re playing with the mask … I’m not blaming them … I’m just saying what happens. They’re playing with the mask, so the mask is over, and they’re touching it, and then they’re touching the plate. That can’t be good.”

On the same morning that the Big Ten reversed its football decision, CDC Director Robert Redfield told a congressional committee that masks are effective. “We have clear scientific evidence they work,” Dr. Redfield said. “I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine, because the immunogenicity may be 70%  and if I don’t get an immune response, the vaccine’s not going to protect me, this face mask will.”

Last weekend, President Trump held rallies in Nevada and Arizona where masks and social distancing were largely ignored. “These face masks are the most important, powerful public health tool we have, and I will continue to appeal for all Americans to embrace these face coverings, if we did it for 6, 8, 10, 12 weeks we’d bring this pandemic under control,” Redfield said.

Trump at a White House press briefing said Dr. Redfield was wrong when he said that masks are “more guaranteed” to protect against the coronavirus than a vaccine: “As far as the masks are concerned, he made a mistake.” He also called Redfield “confused” when it came to the timing of a potential vaccine availability.

The irony is that if Trump had followed his own administration’s protocols beginning last April and extending into the summer, the Big Ten’s decision to play football this fall would have been more of an end zone spike than the arduous and controversial sequence it has just endured, and his own reelection prospects would have been much better today. 

Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana.