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Report: Big Ten school leaders tried to avoid open-records laws while discussing 2020 football season

Nick Bromberg
·3-min read

How much did the leaders of Big Ten schools want to keep away from the public when discussing their options for the 2020 football season?

It's a valid question after a Friday report from the Washington Post. The Post's story notes that leaders across the conference wanted to set up conversations about the pandemic-impacted season on third-party apps.

From the Post:

“I would be delighted to share information,” Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank responded in an email chain begun in August by Michigan President Mark Schlissel, “but perhaps we can do this through the Big 10 portal, which will assure confidentiality?”

The next day, Schlissel told his colleagues: “Just FYI — I am working with Big Ten staff to move the conversation to secure Boardvantage web site we use for league materials. Will advise.”

Big Ten started season in late October

The Big Ten's move to delay the 2020 football season because of the coronavirus was the most scrutinized college athletics decision of the fall. That scrutiny came as the Big Ten seemed to be the most cautious of all the conferences when it came to the impacts of the pandemic and because of political pressure from former President Donald Trump.

There was pushback from within the conference too. Coaches like Ohio State's Ryan Day and Michigan's Jim Harbaugh wanted to play in the fall and the University of Nebraska was outspoken about its desire to play in 2020 and not during the spring.

Trump repeatedly pressured the conference through Twitter and tried to take credit for the Big Ten's decision to play football in the fall. The conference initially delayed the start of the season indefinitely in August before it said in September that it would play a condensed schedule in the fall. Playing football allowed the Big Ten to cash in on part of its television contract and recoup most of the money that it was set to receive from television networks for the 2020 season.

That condensed schedule meant teams had no off weeks and would be unable to make up games if they were cancelled due to coronavirus outbreaks. The Big Ten then had to change its previously-decided season rules at the end of the season to allow Ohio State to play in the Big Ten championship game after the Buckeyes had three games canceled during the season.

The Buckeyes won that Big Ten title game and then beat Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal before losing to Alabama in the national championship.

Thirteen of the 14 schools in the Big Ten (Northwestern is the exception) are public universities and therefore subject to open records laws. And Big Ten leaders moving to a private channel to try to hide communications wouldn't be unprecedented. There are myriad examples of public officials using encrypted third-party apps to conduct official business. The Post report notes that it's "unclear" how often the communications portal was used among Big Ten leaders instead of easily accessible public email accounts.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 19: A detail view of the 2020 Big Ten Championship logo is seen on a banner in action during the Big Ten Championship game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Northwestern Wildcats on December 19, 2020 at Lucas Oil stadium, in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 19: A detail view of the 2020 Big Ten Championship logo is seen on a banner in action during the Big Ten Championship game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Northwestern Wildcats on December 19, 2020 at Lucas Oil stadium, in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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