Big 12 Goes Long: Can Business Follow With Its Own Back-to-Work Hail Mary?

Can U.S. businesses learn anything from the successes and failures of the Big 12’s decision to have players suit up in September?
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The Big 12 will play college football this fall, following a similar decision by the SEC, even as rival conferences such as the Big 10 and Pac-12 decided it wasn’t worth taking the risk during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Who, in the end, will have made the right call? And can U.S. businesses learn anything from the successes and failures of the Big 12’s decision to have players suit up in September?

Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12, told TheStreet’s Jim Cramer that while the league’s choice to play has been “portrayed somewhat as controversial decision” he doesn’t consider that to be the case based “upon the best advice that we could get from medical professionals and scientists.”

Bowlsby said a medical advisory panel from the Big 12 and consultants told the league it should move slowly, make adjustments when necessary and keep re-evaluating its safety procedures and protocols.

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Some businesses in the U.S. already have been trying that strategy, bringing back to the office small groups of people so employees can stick to social distancing and wear masks, practices which the medical community has said are the most effective way to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Cardiovascular concerns, as well as the potential for some young athletes to develop myocarditis, were prevalent in the decision for the Big 10 and Pac-12 to postpone their respective seasons. “The last month or two, even asymptomatic young people are developing myocardial injury,” Dr. Matthew Martinez told Sports Illustrated in a recent article.

Those concerns could also exist in the broader economy, particularly in offices and in businesses with a younger workforce.

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However, there isn't consensus across the medical community. Dr. Michael Ackerman, a genetic cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic, and one of the medical professionals consulted in the Big 12 decision to play, told Cramer the heart should not be the tipping point in sports decisions:

While Ackerman doesn't deny coronavirus can cause myocarditis, he noted that current studies have been primarily on middle-aged adults rather than young, healthy athletes. 

"The heart doesn't deserve to be the certain of the universe in this equation," Ackerman said. "The heart isn't and should not be used as a straw that broke the proverbial camel's back reason to say, 'We're done with sports for now or students returning to campus for now.'"

Many businesses, such as Wells Fargo  (WFC) - Get Report, Boeing  (BA) - Get Report, Cisco  (CSCO) - Get Report and Lowe’s  (LOW) - Get Report had plans to bring workers back into the office after Labor Day. But more than half said in a survey conducted by the Pacific Business Group of Health they would be postponing those plans. In fact, Salesforce.com  (CRM) - Get Report, the cloud computing giant, has given its workers the option of working from home until at least July 31, 2021, extending that from the end of this year.

Cramer, in a recent article for Real Money, said the decision from Salesforce and its CEO, Marc Benioff, shows that moves by many companies to a work-from-home model aren't a fad but could have longer-term implications for the U.S. workforce.

"Work at home, stay at home was supposed to be a fad," Cramer wrote. "Salesforce told us it wasn't. Now, I expect as many companies as can do, to follow suit."

Jim Mora, a former coach of UCLA and the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks who now works as an analyst at ESPN, told Cramer he doesn’t think there is a safer environment than a college football environment that is controlled by coaches, medical professionals, nutritionists and psychologists.

That may be so, but employers won’t have the same control over their workers who either head home to their families, go shopping, or run errands after their workdays are done. 

With nearly 30 million Americans still out of work, and Congress dithering over extended benefits for the still-growing number of unemployed, it’s not a stretch to suggest that businesses are looking to the success and failure of sports leagues, both college and pro, for guidance as to how and when the world’s biggest economy can finally return to normal.

Martin Baccardax contributed to this article.