BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 05/13/2020

Thiel: Virus’s grip tightens around college ball

The California State University system Tuesday said it is going online in fall. Without students, there’s no football. One affected school is Huskies’ week 2 foe.

The Huskies may have lost an opponent, Sacramento State, from the 2020 schedule. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

While the czars, viziers and potentates of sports are putting their shoulders into pushing the coronavirus off the calendars, evidence grew on a busy Tuesday that the sucker is dug in.

Noteworthy was news that the California State University system announced that most in-person classes on all 23 of its campuses in the fall would be cancelled and instruction instead would be offered primarily online.

CSU Chancellor Timothy White’s announcement included the alert that student athletes shouldn’t expect to resume regular sports before faculty and students return to campuses.

Why should football fans in Washington care? One of the affected campuses is Sacramento State.

Its football team, the Hornets of the Big Sky Conference, is scheduled to play at Husky Stadium Sept. 12, Washington’s second game following the ballyhooed Sept. 5 game versus Michigan and its wacky provocateur-coach, Jim Harbaugh.

Some Huskies fans might say the absence of Sac State is no big deal, since it’s a walk-over anyway, despite the fact they were 9-4 in 2019 and made the FCS playoffs. That’s not the point.

Due to circumstances beyond UW’s control, a game appears to have fallen from the 2020 schedule. The question: Is it a one-off, the first of several, or the proverbial canary in college football’s coal mine?

The CSU system, the nation’s largest, also includes BCS schools Fresno State, San Diego State and San Jose State, of the Mountain West Conference, as well as Cal Poly, Fullerton, Long Beach and Northridge in the Big West Conference, and Bakersfield in the Western Athletic Conference.

But it doesn’t include two Pac-12 schools: UCLA, and Cal (USC and Stanford are private). They belong to the separate University of California system (please don’t ask why; it’s California, where everything is overdone).

The news broke late enough Tuesday that the sports conferences had little chance to push back on the decision by the CSU Board of Trustees. But they will try. The cancellation of games, on the whim of a germ, will be an economic disaster for schools and conferences.

The problem for non-Power 5 conference schools isn’t the loss of a whole football season. Since 98 percent of FCS programs lose money, according to USA Today, they would be better off financially by not playing.

The problem is in not getting paid to play the big “guarantee game.”

Sac State will earn more than $1 million for traveling to Seattle to endure an anticipated non-conference whipping, and by dint of the standard contract, UW does not have to play a subsequent road game in Sacramento. While $1 million may not seem like much these days, since the median annual operating deficit among FCS schools is $2.4 million, it is a big deal.

As far as the U-California system that supports the Pac-12, it has made no  determination yet about online-only classes, and the subsequent fate of sports this fall.

However, NCAA president Mark Emmert went on the record Friday as saying there cannot be games on campus if public-health officials determine that it is not safe for students to be on campus. And since the Pac-12 operates in six states and in cities big and small, the chance for 1o to 12 unique governmental responses to virus mitigation is high.

As far as the conference goes, it remains publicly more or less confident that will start a season. But feel free to look behind Larry Scott to see if his fingers are crossed.

In an interview Friday with Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News, the Pac-12 commissioner said he and university presidents were in alignment with Emmert.

“We’ve said from the start that if it’s not safe for the students, it’s not safe for the student-athletes,” he said. Left unsaid by Emmert and Scott is what constitutes a student/faculty return: In-person classes by lab-heavy degree programs? A small or large percentage of regular classes with live humans? Or a group of six socially-distanced students working laptops in a coffee shop on The Ave?

And when does practice begin?

In a local-media teleconference interview Tuesday with Jimmy Lake, the new UW head coach said he’d prefer eight weeks of practice, but is settling for six, meaning about mid-July.

“We would all want more time,” Lake said of his fellow Pac-12 coaches. “Eight weeks would be great, and anything more than that would be obviously going in a positive direction. But six weeks would be a minimum. Get these guys two weeks of just getting in condition, and then start implementing our schemes and going through meetings.

“So I think six weeks, as has been agreed upon, would be at a minimum the best for our guys.”

What happens if one or more Pac-12 university towns remain in lockdown in mid-July, putting them at a competitive disadvantage?

“We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there, but I don’t expect that,” said Scott, who added the presidents were unified in their decision to suspend organized team activities (spring ball), and expects uniformity with the decision to kick off on time.

“That’s my impression based on all the conversations so far,” he said.

Obviously, an unpredictable virus has left everyone grasping for answers because, in parlance any football fan would understand, our local and national efforts have flattened the curve, not crushed it.

The CSU decision is a benchmark for how some universities are attempting to cope with a summer forecast of a steady stream of confirmed cases. It remains to be seen how many follow suit.

Whether a football season gets played in full, in part or not at all is quite secondary, especially in Montlake.

A Seattle Times story disclosed that UW Medicine, the health-care system that has played a significant role in fighting the pandemic locally and nationally, may lose as much as $500 million by the end of August.

Staff cuts, furloughs, hiring restrictions and pay cuts are among options being considered because so many non-emergency medical procedures were canceled to make room for Covid-19 cases, and because so much new equipment had to be purchased, such as testing and protective gear.

The development is worthy of mention in case there are any wealthy sports fans who have an urge help their financially imperiled favorite college teams. There’s another favorite team in town far more worthy of private philanthropy.



  • coug73

    How many players, coaches, trainers need to test positive with COVID-19 to shut down a football program?

    • art thiel

      That’s the question no one has yet answered, because they haven’t had to. But once the commitment to a re-start is formalized, the answer will have to be in black and white. Pity the college players; they have no union.

    • Kirkland

      Using soccer examples, Italy’s “ground zero” moment happened in February when 40,000 fans from a city which was unaware it had the virus attended a Champions League match, and it spread to its Spanish opposition: Also, England began to suspend its league when a few players plus a coach of tested positive, and then the mother of another coach passed away from it. I think once you need more than the fingers on one hand to count the positive tests, that will shut down the season.

      • art thiel

        Tests will be the pivot point. Particularly when we’ve seen testing that’s inaccurate, producing false negatives. News stories pointed to the Abbott test that the White House uses has a 15% fail rate. I thought it would be perfect.

    • LarryLurex70

      That’s a legit question for Dana White and his UFC.

      • art thiel

        Has he been tested for integrity?

  • Alan Harrison

    The difference between the 10 UC campuses (Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD, UC Riverside, UC Irvine, UC Davis, UC Merced, UC San Francisco, UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara) and the Cal State System (Long Beach State, CSUN, etc.) is that the former are more rigorous academically and are more highly funded individually than the Cal State Universities. The difference between UW and Western Washington, both 4-year, but one funded much more highly than the other. Beyond that, this is not unexpected, as California has been ahead of the curve on productive actions at just about every turn. Dr. Fauci confirmed that the second wave will be worse than the first because of premature openings, so this portends to a lost season, at least until a cure/vaccine/treatment comes forward. Hell, we haven’t even flattened the curve yet from the first wave.

    • art thiel

      Thanks for the explainer; I skipped it for reasons of brevity. The distinctions are based more on making a college education more affordable for many; that includes a well-developed junior college system.

      You’re right about the second wave; the sports leagues’ eagerness to resume are based on short-term need for revs and income, not a public-health prediction that doesn’t seem real to owners and players. I do think we have flattened the curve in terms of national average, but we will have hot spots with every premature large gathering.

    • Kirkland

      Trivia break: All of the UC schools use variations of blue and gold for their color schemes.

      • Husky73

        Cal and UCLA have the same fight song.

  • jafabian

    When medical professionals are predicting a severe relapse in the fall and football schedules have to be readjusted it isn’t realistic to plan for a season, even a shortened one. Shaquille O’neal recently suggested that the NBA formerly announce the cancellation of the season saying that if it was resumed the eventual champion would forever have an asterisk by their name. The same could be said for college and pro football. With some cities and employers (Amazon has extended their work regime to October) already preparing to hunker down until at least into autumn it’s time to consider just cancelling. To cancel in May might be premature but already cities are canceling summer events. By this summer if shelter at home orders are still in effect and testing is still hard to come by to the general public then proceeding with a weekly mass attendance in the tens of thousands, some in a major city, would be ill advised to say the least. To think that Pullman, Corvallis and Eugene might have it better than Seattle, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

    • art thiel

      Elsewhere in the U.S., small towns have come for a pounding. Harvest season will have lots of workers in close quarters.

  • DJ

    Thanks Art! Team Entertainment vs Team Survival? Could you imagine if college boosters actually shifting their focus of support from sports to medical academia? ….Gosh, maybe there could be a signing day for medical research commits. Seriously though, you’re right – it’s a scary thing altogether the financial hits being taken by so many, and now when it’s hitting the folks that we need to get through to a vaccine and reliable tests, “Hello Mr Booster – we need your help over here now!”.

    While sports is a great escape from the rigors of daily life, and a huge contributor to the fabric of society, it just seems so unimportant now. Daily life got too serious to ignore, even part time.

    Really glad to see so many reader responses that get the reality of this pandemic. “The Voice of Reason” has an impressive membership of readers. Cheers and stay safe all!