BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 04/29/2020

Thiel: Re-start college ball in fall? Hard to see

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.

Husky Stadium filling up in September? Big underdawg. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

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.

Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News explained the schools’ position here April 7.

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.


  • stever

    Art, I think you’re focusing on the wrong state and conference. When all is said and done I believe the PAC-12 will stick together…but what happens this fall with sports shutdown in the conference of champions if the SEC and ACC start back up and then due to fan or state pressures the BIG-12 and BIG-10 join them. What does the PAC-12 do then? I can easily foresee a fall with no college sports on the west coast but other parts of the country having them. Does the PAC-12 survive in that scenario? Do school presidents say you know what we have never liked big time college sports, when the sports do come back we will deemphasize them and become Ivy League West? Just a thought as I’m thinking of bad for the PAC-12 scenarios this morning. SR

    • art thiel

      I focused on P12 because we’re more familiar, but you’re right, other conferences may be more vulnerable to being pulled apart. Because of the potential for an absence of unanimity among NCAA schools, they are going to be hard-pressed to stage a season. No one team or league can get ahead of any other because of the obvious unfairness. Because there are `130 schools around the country, the logistics of uniform testing seem implausible at best.

  • Alan Harrison

    Great op-ed. Causes readers to think about priorities, something that has been missing from the “we want a haircut” crowd. I wish all college presidents were like Dr. Robbins. Having worked for the University of Alabama during the brief Mike Price era, I can say that they are not. A losing football season the following year cost the President his job. Obviously, the rise and fall of college football pales in comparison to this damned virus, which controls the offense, the defense, the special teams, all the coaches, and the crowds. Especially the crowds. So, respectfully to all the nay-sayers, until there is either a vaccine, a cure, or at least a treatment for Covid-19, we simply can’t have college football.

    Re-reading that last sentence makes me sad that I felt compelled to write it.

    • Husky73

      As baseball is contemplating, it may be possible to test players, coaches, staff and officials and play conference games in empty stadiums in a few locations. Perhaps far fetched, but possible.

      • art thiel

        All the sports are looking at options, which they should. I can’t say if one is better than another yet, but empty stadiums only solve for part of the problem. The greatest issue is player to player transmission, and the only workaround I’ve seen is daily testing, which at the moment is rare, slow and expensive for the schools.

    • art thiel

      Thanks. The unique aspect of college sports is the colleges have been entrusted by parents with their kid’s welfare. Some of the kids are going to respond to restrictions with impulsive decisions. Colleges have to be conservative about returning to contact sports.

    • rosetta_stoned

      So, respectfully to all the nay-sayers, until there is either a vaccine,
      a cure, or at least a treatment for Covid-19, we simply can’t have
      college football.

      But, but I thought it was about flattening the curve? You mean it wasn’t? You mean we’re stuck in our homes forever?

      Respectfully, not no. But hell no.

  • Ken Snider

    A believe a positive serological test indicates that someone has had the virus and is in theory immune. Are they proposing that only immune people can return the campus?
    If I want to go to this school, I need to go get Covid to qualify?

    That can’t be correct.

    Art, did they tell you more about this?

    • art thiel

      I don’t think it’s a requirement for admission nor a cause for expulsion. It’s a test to discover the rate of infection in a community to help create mitigations to curb the spread of disease. Regarding your point about immunity, it is a theory. The data is insufficient to establish whether antibodies work a lot or a little, and how long they last.

  • Ken S.

    It’s too bad that so few of you can see what is going on right under your noses. This is not about a virus, it’s about power, and who has it. And right now the State is winning. Amazon and Walmart are winning, unless you think that killing off Mom & Pop shops here and elsewhere is a good thing, you and I are losing!

    A bunch of fools, fooled by a bunch of power hungry tyrants, and that includes our governor.

    This coronavirus is BS, it doesn’t even live up to a decent flu season. The death rate is .2%. But don’t take my word for it, do a bit of research and you can see for yourself.

    There are none so blind as those who will not see. And brother are you guys blind!

    • art thiel

      Who is “the state,” Ken? The administrative state that the Trump was elected to dismantle is failing, precisely because he hollowed it out and rendered it largely inert to a natural disaster. Prior to 2000, the feds were reasonably good at national emergency response.

      Since you think this is just another flu season, I strongly urge you to stay away from bleach.

      • rosetta_stoned

        Why do you continue to repeat these lies, Art? Trump didn’t hollow out a thing. The vaunted pandemic response team you people keep saying he eliminated was simply re-assigned and folded into another agency.

        It’s too bad you let your left-wing bias cloud every, damn thing you write.

        • Ken S.

          Must be something in the Seattle water supply. My 47yo daughter is finally opening her eyes to what is happening around her, and she doesn’t like it very much. She asked me what she could do, I told her to talk to her friends and co-workers (if she has any left after this crap blows over) and sound them out. She’s reported back that many of her friends know what is going down, but were afraid to talk about it! Imagine that happening, right here in the good ole USA! How does sh*t like that happen???

          I know we are outnumbered, but we must keep questioning everything!

        • eYeROQ

          And do you know why it was folded into another agency?

          The pandemic-response office was created to give the issue high-level attention. Trump’s team downgraded the office because they thought it needed less attention. “In a world of limited resources, you have to pick and choose,” an administration official explained to the Post in its 2018 story on the reorg. They chose issues other than pandemic response.

          As a result of having his agency disbanded and staff folded into another agency, Adm. Timothy Ziemer abruptly left. The major role of the pandemic-response coordinator was the ability to bring together multiple departments. His departure meant no senior administration official was focused solely on global health security. So while remaining staff did sound the alarm, without Ziemer their leverage in the White House to get pandemic response addressed at the top of the president’s priorities until it was too late was non-existent. The need was apparent at the time Trump downgraded the agency. “Health security is very fragmented, with many different agencies … it means coordination and direction from the White House is terribly important.” J. Stephen Morrison, senior VP at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Post in its 2018 story.

          So yeah I’d say he pretty effectively neutered the pandemic response team, even if he didn’t exactly “hollow it out”. Same diff when they don’t have a senior official with the stature to communicate the gravity of the situation to the president to respond in time. And to add insult to injury, when Trump finally gets that he needs someone to coordinate the response he puts Kushner in charge.

          I shouldn’t have to explain how Kushner is vastly under-qualified for the job of pandemic response coordinator. His incompetence speaks for itself. Even Trump was infuriated Kushner had downplayed the threat to him initially.

      • Ken S.

        The ‘State’, Art, is this state, the one Inslee runs, and it seems, with more and more of his bent towards tyranny showing. It is too bad you don’t see this, it’s right under our noses. Good Lord! Do I need to paint the whole frigging picture for you? Do yourself a favor, watch The Speech That Got JFK killed, on youtube, then watch the Plan To Save The World. Both links are below. Get educated while you still can.

        The speech that got JFK killed:

        The Plan to Save The World:

  • jafabian

    If sports resumes in the Fall, and that’s a big if, stadiums and arenas cannot and should not operate at full capacity. Not even half IMO. If employers can require employees to have their temperature taken before entering the premises maybe fans entering the stadium should do the same. They usually have to go through a metal detector anyway. But the economics of sports business will at least play a part in the final decision and how it’s implemented. I doubt casual fans will be willing to attend games initially so really they may as well start off with just season ticket holders attending.

    • rosetta_stoned

      Then stay home. Hide under you bed.