Since news broke Monday that the University of Michigan football team would pause “in-person activity” due to a rash of positive COVID-19 tests, social media has lit up with speculation that the Wolverines’ effort to ensure the safety of its players, coaches, and staff is just a way to get out of next week’s rivalry match vs. No. 4 Ohio State.
The troll, which has been decried by experts and analysts as the state of Michigan deals with some of the worst COVID-19 spikea in the nation, was somehow brought to life by beloved ESPN talking head Kirk Herbstreit.
Herbstreit Makes Unsubstantiated Claims, Walks Them Back on Twitter
During the lead-in to ESPN’s weekly update of the College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday, former Buckeyes’ quarterback Herbstreit said Michigan could use its outbreak COVID-19 cases as an excuse to not face Ohio State in “The Game” on Dec. 12.
“I still think Michigan will wave the white flag and not play this week,” Herbstreit said. “Is that fair? Michigan could opt out and keep Ohio State out of the Big Ten championship. That doesn’t make sense to me.”
Without further evidence or reference points, Herbstreit doubled down, claiming college football coaches have told him teams are using COVID-19 as an excuse to pass on games they might not win. The show’s co-host, Rece Davis, gave Herbstreit a chance to walk back his comments, which he did not do until later that day on a short video he posted on Twitter.
“I had no business at all saying that,” Herbstreit said during his 120-second mea culpa. “I have no evidence of that. It was completely unfair to the University of Michigan, to Jim Harbaugh, to his players and coaches.”
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) December 2, 2020
ESPN has not commented on the incident.
Michigan’s Season May Be Over, ‘The Game’ in Jeopardy for First Time in a Century
Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, where Michigan has already canceled its Saturday game vs. Maryland, the school announced Wednesday that it’s downgraded team activities to pause “all football activity” until Monday.
Testing will continue until then, and “medical professionals will make a determination when to resume practice,” school officials said in a statement.
Michigan football insider Chris Balas said he would “bet heavily” against The Game being played, as commentators, epidemiologists, and even Twitter are beginning to see the light that this football season, with more than 120 games canceled or postponed so far, may not be worth playing out amid a pandemic.
This sentiment has created alliances in the strangest of places:
For the health and safety of the student athletes, the college football season should officially be cancelled. 😉
— Rich (@rbr64225) December 2, 2020
On Tuesday, Ohio State (4-0), which canceled last Saturday’s football game at Illinois because of its own COVID-19 outbreak, resumed its team activities. It looks like the Buckeyes will be healthy enough to field a team to travel to East Lansing to face Michigan State on Saturday. The Buckeyes are currently 23.5-point favorites in The Game.
Without a game against Michigan, however, the Buckeyes won’t have enough contests to qualify for the Big Ten championship game or the College Football Playoff.
If The Game is indeed canceled next week, it will be the first time Ohio State and Michigan won’t meet on the gridiron since the 1917 season.