Before football returns, Pac-12 presidents have said students have to be on campus and safe. On all campuses. But there is no Pac-12 of state governments.
We all know by now that predicting a definitive course for a coronavirus pandemic is like forecasting what the Seahawks will do with their first-round draft choice: We can do all the mock drafts we want, but nobody knows anything.
One thing we’re learning about the pandemic, at least from the aspect of U.S. political response, is that it looks like windshield safety glass after a freeway rock.
As the Trump administration continues to abdicate the responsibility that was built into the federal/state system of emergency response to environmental disasters, it falls to the states to make nearly all decisions. That includes whether to participate in bidding wars with each other for personal protective equipment for health-care workers (the preposterous answer: yes.)
Yet having the states run the show isn’t all bad. Local leaders with competence, which we seem to have in Washington, can work more quickly and efficiently for needs that are urgent.
But when it comes to the small but high-profile industry of sports, however, state-by-state gets messy.
Not at the pro level, nor the high school level, where organizations lend themselves to one-size-fits-all leadership. It gets messy with big-time college sports. For a simple reason, somehow overlooked when it comes to answering the daily question, “When can we re-start?”
Largely for reasons of tradition and convenience of travel, the conferences are grouped by proximity (when it’s the Pac-12 Conference, that term is a literal and figurative stretch, with teams splattered across six big Western states). These competitive organizations are administered, via self-created by-laws, by a non-profit trade association, the NCAA, an entity that has a higher proportion of tinfoil-hat wearers than should be allowed by law.
The difficulty is that, independent of the NCAA, many of the schools are state institutions obligated to follow the rules laid down by governors responding to varying pressures. When the governors, seeking to curb the spread of the virus, ordered shutdowns of schools in March, from kindergartens to graduate schools, all complied.
But as you are bearing witness, the re-start is more complicated.
Which brings us to Thursday in Arizona.
That’s the expiration date for the state’s stay-at-home orders (Washington’s expiration date is May 4), which began March. Gov. Doug Ducey has remained quiet about specifics, but as a former CEO and a Republican in a Republican-leaning state, the speculation is he will seek to re-open businesses and relax some of the stay-at-home orders — likely faster than desired by public health officials.
He’s already declined to join the Western States Pact, a recent alliance among California, Oregon and Washington legislators who have agreed to work together on the decisions that influence how and when the re-start begins.
Meanwhile, in Tucson, home of the University of Arizona, something different is happening.
The university’s president, Dr. Robert C. Robbins, is a heart and lung transplant surgeon. He and the medical school are part of the leading edge of global research into blood tests that will quickly measure immunity to the the disease. He explained some of his ambition in an April 5 guest editorial in the Arizona Daily Star:
I have vast experience in the field of immunology and am in conversation with national experts on developing a serological test for our campus community to do actual blood tests to measure immunity from COVID-19. This breakthrough could allow a prerequisite for returning to school or work until there is a vaccine, helping to ensure a safe and healthy workplace and learning environment at the university and elsewhere moving forward. This screening could also be incredibly valuable for protecting health workers, allowing hospitals and other facilities to prioritize use of personal protective equipment, like masks for those who do not show the presence of antibodies from a previous immune response.
As he explained in an interview that aired Tuesday on CNN, Robbins seeks to test the entire UA community (40,000+ students) in order to allow its return physically to campus. If all went well, that could happen in time for the start of the school year in the fall.
Obviously, such a development would be a major national and global breakthrough. In the tiny world of college sports, that would also satisfy the requirement agreed upon earlier by the conference’s CEO Group, the 12 school presidents: There can be no football before the safe return of each school’s students and staff.
Regarding the efforts of the UA medical community to achieve a medical breakthrough, it isn’t necessarily in conflict with Ducey’s presumed agenda to get more quickly up to speed the businesses of Arizona, whose population has experienced far fewer COVID-19 infections per capita than the coastal states that have eight Pac-12 schools.
But it does create a potential quagmire for the Pac-12. If the plans of Ducey and Robbins are successful, Arizona potentially will have a football team and fans, but no one to play against. The season can’t go on, at least until the mass testing can be replicated on 11 other college campuses.
As Wilner explained April 20, the developing policies of each state are shaped by politics and circumstances unique to each. There may be a Western States Pact, but there is no Pac-12 of states.
There remains all of May, June and July to see what happens to the virus, the health-care system in the face of an economy’s unsteady re-start, and the biotech innovations pursued by Robbins, his colleagues at the University of Washington and other schools dedicated to defending against the scourge of our times.
Until then, there is this observation offered by Dr. Nate Favini of Harvard Medical School, in an interview with The Guardian about future of sports and COVID-19.
“Live sporting events with large audiences shouldn’t lead the way for reopening economy,” he said, “because getting 40,000 people into a stadium is actually one of the more dangerous things to do. I think it will be one of the last things to happen.”
I’m eager to see the Huskies in 2020 under new coach Jimmy Lake. I’m more eager to see the shutdown end once, not twice. Most of all, I want the UA president win a far bigger contest.