The Pac-12 reversed itself, saying football is OK now because of better COVID-19 testing. But that doesn’t stop students from infecting players. In one case, fatally.
We assume University of Washington football coach Jimmy Lake made a wise choice of profession, particularly if his second choice was to become a public health official.
In a Zoom conference in mid-August, Lake’s understanding of the unanimous decision by the Pac-12 Conference to abandon the 2020 football season was so solid that he said the SEC, ACC and Big 12 would shortly see their collective folly in trying to play in a pandemic when much had to be learned about COVID-19.
“I believe all three other conferences are going to follow suit (canceling) in due time,” Lake said.
Turns out it was the other way around. The Pac-12 Thursday became the last of the Power 5 conferences to try to wedge in a season on campuses, which elsewhere nationally have become disease hotspots, starting Nov. 6 and ending on the Dec. 18 weekend.
Lake was working off of conclusions made by medical people and conference executives expert in their fields and confident in their decisions, so his faulty forecast shouldn’t be held against him. Nevertheless, it’s clear that if the coaching gig doesn’t work out for him, Lake’s only career in public health would be in the Trump administration.
We are led to believe by Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott that the change in conviction was based on biotech innovation unavailable at the time of the Aug. 11 plug-pulling — the introduction of rapid point-of-care testing.
Developed by the Quidel Corp. of San Diego, the FDA-approved method can produce a test result in 15 minutes. This is a big deal because a player tested daily has a greatly reduced chance to spread the infection.
While the development was cast as a breakthrough, in fact a point-of-care test had already been in use successfully for months on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson.
As was pointed out in this Aug. 14 column, the UA president, Robert C. Robbins, is also a heart surgeon and was fully engaged in his school’s efforts to develop a testing solution (apart from the athletics department) since not long after the nationwide shutdown.
“We’ve been at this since March,” Robbins said. “We’ve refined the protocols – how we collect, how we test, how we get the results back. You need to have it in a timely fashion, especially if you’re testing, say, the day of the game.
“I think we can run a test every three minutes. So within 10 minutes, you can know if an individual is positive or negative. Not everybody has that capability. Trying to scale that in the next couple of weeks would have been really tough.”
Tough, yes, but whatever investment in production capacity that was necessary seems worthwhile relative to the millions in TV revenue lost playing only a half-season of football. Perhaps the Quidel labs are more efficient, but it is puzzling how the Pac-12 didn’t attempt to exploit a breakthrough on one of its own campuses.
In any event, the conference has committed, belatedly, to an innovation that unlocks a partial season in a sport that elsewhere around the country already has seen 21 games postponed to virus outbreaks in conferences that have ignored the cautions. That includes Notre Dame’s game at Wake Forest Saturday after 13 Irish players were reported in isolation and 10 were in quarantine.
On the same day the reversal was announced, Boulder County, home to the Pac-12’s Colorado Buffaloes, ordered a two-week prohibition on gatherings of any size among university students between 18 and 22 years old. Public health officials there said Boulder is the site of the state’s largest COVID-19 breakout since the pandemic began. They specifically gave stay-at-home orders to 36 addresses, most of them fraternities and sororities.
That means the Buffs can’t gather to practice for two weeks. Unless, of course, the prohibition is extended to a month because most frat rats will continue to be moronic.
The progress with testing capacity is good news in helping curb the potential spread, but does nothing to stop initial infections, or complications that each case makes for each program.
A positive test requires a 14-day quarantine, taking players out of games and practices and requiring minimal activity. So the players lose conditioning and timing. Their replacements may be more exposed to mistakes and injuries from lack of reps.
That certainly would seem to be a threat to players in the Big Ten, which declared no season, in harmony with the Pac-12 on the same day, but voted to pivot Sept. 16 with a start on the Oct. 24 weekend.
But there’s a significant difference between the conferences in how they dealt with the postponements.
“I don’t think people know that when the seasons were postponed, the Big Ten and Pac-12 took completely different paths,” a Pac-12 coach anonymously told Bruce Feldman of The Athletic. “They kept going like it was still training camp. They kept the same schedule like they were gonna play. We didn’t. Half of our schools couldn’t.”
That explains why the Pac-12 start is two weeks later than the Big Ten. The conference’s medical advisory committee required two weeks of ramp-up conditioning before four weeks of padded practices.
“If you try and rush them back before they’ve had enough time to get in shape to actually play football, you’re saying that health and safety actually doesn’t matter,” another Pac-12 head coach told Feldman. “You’re gonna have a shit-ton of injuries. If the Pac-12 says health and safety is their No. 1 priority, and they try to rush their teams back, then they’re just full of shit.
“To play football, you actually have to practice football. Forget scheme, our guys are basically doing combine training. But that doesn’t get you ready to play games.”
Obviously, the Pac-12 CEOs who voted Thursday heard the complaints of the coaches. Scott claimed Thursday that the votes on Nov. 6 and seven games were unanimous.
Now all that is left to worry about is no more deaths.
Or did you miss the news of the sport’s first COVID-19 fatality?
The New York Times reported this week that Jamain Stephens, a senior defensive lineman for California University-Pennsylvania, a Division II school an hour south of Pittsburgh, died earlier this month from COVID-19 complications. The son of an offensive lineman by the same name who played five years in the NFL, he was 21.
“This is a billion-dollar industry — I get that,” Kelly Allen, Stephens’s mother, told the Times. “But not at the risk of these boys’ lives. Nothing is worth that.
“My heart is shattered in a million pieces. I can’t even describe the pain I feel. But do I have fight in me? Absolutely. If it will save some parent’s grief, absolutely.”
Allen will have a formidable foe. The college football behemoth shall play on.