BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 09/25/2020

Thiel: Pac-12 football must run a broken field

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.

Husky Stadium may host a few games in November and December, virus willing. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

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.



Support SportspressNW

The idea is simple: Want to help? Please, and thank you. Don’t want to help? Please and thank you for continuing to read. Our content is free to all. No paywalls. No tricks. See the ways you can support SportspressNW.


  • Seattle Psycho

    Hate the decision on a health and humanity standpoint and while I understand the decision from a “business” standpoint I do not agree with it. These are still “amateur” athletes who know if they do not play, they will be passed over on the depth chart and have a stigma attached to them for at least a year. The proverbial rock and hard place. Pac-12/Big-10 were put in an unenviable position by those universities that put athletics before academics. I think the Big10 could have survived a year of not playing with little or no problem but the PAC-12 would have faired far worse. Still do not think they should be playing and am hopeful those in charge of the testing/health decisions get it correct.

    • Kirkland

      People have suggested red states generally support reopening of sports, and blue states holding back. Look at the maps of the ACC/SEC/Big 12 (solid red), the Big 10 (red-to-swing) and Pac 12 (blue), and you can see it’s a thought.

      • art thiel

        It’s true. Lots of red-staters think it’s a hoax.

      • Hockeypuck

        Guess what? Florida is now “fully open”. 10% of the + COVID diagnoses (more or less) nationally are in the Sunshine state. If, in 90 days their hospitals are overwhelmed, and deaths are soaring – even then they probably won’t change their approach. Multiplied times Texas, Alabama, etc. The south is becoming a wonderful freedom vs. responsibility thought experiment. Or maybe Darwinism in effect. Couldn’t help but notice today that all the stadiums in the South are allowing fan attendance – up to 25% of capacity (I believe). So if this all “goes South” (pun intended), then Trump can finally build his wall – at the Mason Dixon line…

    • art thiel

      A loss of a year’s revs would be very damaging to each Power 5 conference. I get their urgency for a workaround. But it can’t be done at the cost of student lives or long-term health.

  • Matt712

    It continues to amaze and confound me, the level of denial or even flat refusal of the reality of COVID-19 in this country: COVID-19 is deadly. This is not conjecture; it is reality. It is math. To wit, here are some very simple numbers:

    331,000,000 (U.S. population) ÷ 7,000,000 (number of COVID cases in U.S.) = 47.29
    which means: Currently, 1 out of 47 Americans have or have had COVID-19.

    7,000,000 (number of COVID cases in U.S.) ÷ 203,000 (number U.S. deaths from COVID-19) = 34.48
    which means: Currently, 1 out of 34 U.S. COVID-19 cases result in death.

    Using the data, the math (see: not fake news) above, we can expect an avg. of at least one player per participating football team to contract COVID-19. And that player has a 1 in 34 chance of dying. Now, who’s to say what a player’s incentive to play college football is. But if it’s making it to the NFL, then a cursory internet search tells me that he has 1 in 50 chance (2%).

    This is like a game show – let’s call it THE PRICE IS HIGH. How it works is there are two big wheels. The first wheel has 47 spaces on it, with one of those spaces as the “winner.” What does he win, Bob? “A POTENTIALLY DEADLY DISEASE!!”
    So, if you’re lucky enough to hit it on the first wheel, you get to play the BONUS ROUND!
    The Bonus Round is a second wheel – this one with only 34 spaces on it and one “winning”space. On this wheel, if he hits the “winner,” you know what he gets? Tell him, Bob! “HE GETS TO DIE!!!”

    That’s it. that’s the real game they’re playing. Oh, and there’s absolutely nothing else to win or gain for the contestant. there’s no money; it’s the show that makes the money.

    So, if you’re the player, this is an all risk – no reward venture… unless you count the accolades and pats on the back you might receive from all the people that will be making money from your efforts, while you, quite literally are putting your life on the line. For a game.

    • Husky73

      West, Stephen and Matt….I agree with your math, and your conclusions. HOWEVER, people make different choices– often much to my head-shaking chagrin. Football players (high school, college and pro) choose to play, even thought the risk of brain injury is high. Others consume nicotine, alcohol and narcotics, knowing that they are poisoning their bodies. I know a guy who puts his Boeing paycheck on the line all summer at Emerald Downs. Is the health of someone’s 19 year old linebacker-son simply fodder for the entertainment of those who enjoy college football? Of course not, but those are the choices the players, coaches and administrators have made. I also cannot fathom young men who climb rock walls without safety ropes, parents who joyously sent their sons off to play for Bobby Knight, people who deliberately hunt sharks, or the 70 million Americans who will vote for President Trump this year.

      • art thiel

        It’s true that intentionally harming oneself for recreation/profit has been a choice that is generally respected. I’m OK with those adults who fully understand the risk/reward, and sometimes even if they don’t understand. But at the high school and college level, there needs to be a much more credible platform for independent medical pros to spell out the risk/reward to parents and kids. I don’t trust the schools to always act in the kids’ best interests.

    • art thiel

      Even without COVID, football is a long-term health problem for many if not most of its participants. Each year of brain injury research tells us that, not to mention the physical debilitations. That is my concern for young athletes beyond the small chance of death. We have already seen lingering damage to “survivors” no longer needing hospitalization. We’re only in the eighth month of learning about this disease. Yet we persist in our need for college football amusement, misunderstanding that faster testing does not produce a cure, only a slowing of the spread.

  • StephenBody

    I am forced to think – because I possess a working brain – that there has to be some way for colleges to skip playing football until the pandemic is somewhat better under control – or a vaccine is perfected – and still find a way to showcase the 2020 senior class of players so that they are not handicapped in their NFL aspirations. While it DOES, emphatically, suck that athletes have to miss what is, for some of them, their last year ever on a football field, it’s one of those life lessons in Priorities that says that we are ALL being deprived to some degree and that we all have to make the best of the struggle and find creative alternative solutions.

    I love football as much as anyone I know but I do NOT think NCAA football should be played this year at all. It is plainly unrealistic to expect that people from age 17 to about 22-24 will be restrained and judicious in their behavior, at an age when most are convinced of their own immortality. And doubly hard when they see so many supposedly mature adults denying science, screaming about masks and “the Constitution” and “my rights!” and refusing to mask up. I believe that one of our most basic problems as a society is our whoppin’ sense of Entitlement: we think that solutions must be perfect and work no hardship on us, demand NO sacrifice, and must be easy. This rejection of reality, I think, is what underlies most of our societal crises. It would NOT be the end of the world if nobody plays college football, this year. It COULD be the end of the world if a pandemic with lethal consequences wipes out most of humanity.

    • art thiel

      Well said, Steve. Many of us don’t understand that global crises require sacrifices, which may include some foregoing of entertainments like college football. As you said, many of us can’t handle reality

      As far as college players and the NFL, the top-tier kids will be found, no matter what. For the vast majority of kids who would have lost a final season, it would have been a shame. Now it’s an increased risk to their long-term health. I hope it’s worth it.

    • doloresjhudson0

      Google home jobs $86 ph… friend’s step-aunt gets 76 dollar an hour from home… she has been laid off for eight months..(98kdv) the previous month her profit was 20400 dollar working on the laptop for a couple of hours each day… look at this >>>>>>>>>>>>


  • Tman

    Covid-19, police murders of unarmed black, brown and poor people including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, an insane leader inciting to riot and offering to pay the legal fees of those who do, makes for a hard days night for all of us, including the sports world.

    What to do?

    The right thing.

    Remove the insane leader and prosecute the murderers. Each and every one.

    Or stop playing the game.

    Note: 60 thousand mental health professionals called for the immediate removal of Donald J. Trump in their Duty To Warn letter two years ago. What is the holdup?

    • Husky73

      Note to Tman…There’s an election on November 3rd.

      • Tman

        Indeed. We had one of those in 2000.. the losers of the popular vote and electoral college sued. 5 justices appointed by the losing political party stopped the recounts when it was clear Gore won. The losers, Dick Cheney and W. Bush, appointed by the court, took office.
        Ditto 2016.
        What might change this year if our votes don’t count and the Court appoints the winner?
        Do we accept their decision to put the losers in office for the third time out of four elections this century?
        There is no provision for court appointed Presidents in our Constitution..The law of the land.

        • Husky73

          It was not “clear” that Gore won the Florida vote. Bush and Cheney were not appointed by the court. They were elected by the vote of the electoral college. Among the thousands of things NOT in the Constitution are the right to privacy, the right to a jury of your peers, political parties, primaries, marriage, capital punishment, the filibuster, the siuze of the Supreme Court, judicial review executive privilege, the right to remain silent and the Air Force. And yes, we “accept” the decision of the Supreme Court.

          • Tman

            Dick Cheney’s hunting partner, Scalia, refused to recuse himself for his obvious conflict of interest. Scalia cast the deciding vote to stop the counting of the ballots after it was certain Gore won and appointed his hunting partner, Cheney, vice President. Cheney was, in fact, President the five years W Bush was officially on vacation. We could argue this all day, but the question remains, How do you suggest we rid ourselves of an insane president?

          • Hockeypuck

            Dude – that question has already been answered more than once above. Move on. Your inability/unwillingness to accept the Nov. 3 solution, and suggestion that we need to “rid ourselves” of an odious commander-in-chief insinuates that you think a more a more extreme, self anointed, self-righteous, self-serving, non-democratic “solution” is justified. Kind of like the ends justifies the means – which was one of principles of propaganda employed by Lenin to do whatever he wanted to. Suspicion of the motives of your ilk are what motivated people (in fear) at the margin to hold their noses and elect Trump to the White House. And if he wins again, do some introspection and FIND A WAY for your party to nominate someone that can garner support across a broader political spectrum. The majority of the (mostly center) voting populace is hungry for such a person. Take it out of the hands of the Supremes – don’t enable them to be tie-breakers – if it comes to that again some introspection would be in order. Not sure you’re up to the task – and your veiled threats will only perpetuate the status quo.

          • Husky73

            Hockeypuck…he shoots, he scores!

          • Husky73

            70 million voters believe that Trump is the best President in their lifetime. We don’t “rid ourselves” of anyone. We hold elections.

        • art thiel

          Electoral system reform is a huge topic, and desperately needed. But the SC didn’t appoint Bush. And I will pass on re-litigating the case here.

    • art thiel

      I understand well the larger complaint. But the column is about the smaller picture of the Pac-12 and testing. The larger picture is addressed Nov. 3.

  • WestCoastBias79

    I realize I’m likely in the minority, but I’ve been having a personal ethical dilemma with college football for years. The risks associated with playing the game already deserved much better compensation than a scholarship, especially with the amount of money involved, but the addition of playing in the face of a pandemic might be the coup de gras to my fandom. The adults are supposed to stop the kids from being idiots, not encourage it. The professionals playing with compensation is fine, but this feels criminal. The incentives of this entire industry are being laid bare. College athletes are not essential workers.

    • art thiel

      Welcome to a fairly large club. There is no entity independent of the schools looking out for athletes’ welfare.

  • Kirkland

    If you’re going to get all of these testing kits for the football players, you’d damned well also get them for the students, faculty, and staff.

    • SeattleSince57

      You’re not saying college education is more important than football..? LOL

    • Archangelo Spumoni

      Well posted, and respectfully asked here: if the Pac-12 test is all that good and fast and everything, why aren’t a TON of other outfits using the same test? Military, many businesses, schools, athletic outfits, other countries–just about everybody. If they are fast and accurate, let’s see a wide wide application.
      I understand the cost part, but what happens when a carrier crew gets it again?

      Don’t get me wrong–I want the fastest, cheapest, AND most reliable test around and I can’t figure out why the Pac-12 has this particular setup.

      Any info from other readers is fully appreciated..

    • Husky73

      My grand daughter is an incoming freshman. She had to be tested before being allowed on campus or in her dorm.

      • art thiel

        The key is followup testing. Too bad she isn’t a football player.

        • Husky73

          Basketball, fastpitch and cross country…..!

    • art thiel

      Fair question. The tests should be made available to first responders, and hospital staffs. But the Pac-12 is a desperate “private” outfit first in line with a check to a private lab.

  • nolan

    So the Big 10 and Pac 12 are ready to play football. Are the athletes ready to do remote learning?? Go ahead, flip a coin,,,

    • art thiel

      Well, that’s what the athletes supposedly have been doing since campuses opened, and since the shutdown in March. However effective that is, is a bigger question without data yet to provide an answer.

  • jafabian

    I’ve wondered how much the NFL choosing to play influenced this decision as well as student athletes deciding to save themselves for the NFL draft if there wasn’t going to be a season. With the cold and flu season coming we’ll see how well the public can ward off COVID19 and if these decisions were the right ones to do.

    • art thiel

      There was huge pressure on the Pac-12 to continue. But the schools have educations and campuses to manage, and they don’t want to spend time and money on the entertainment division. They took a biotech shortcut. I hope for the players’ sakes it works.

  • Brian Wimberly

    Too bad that this “flu” interupted the entire sporting world. Well, you are part of the deception so F off. GREED is the main factor here. Loss of initial revenue, then loss of quality players leaving school to go to another.

    Those that have played football are familiar with being in “football” shape. Well, it doesn’t happen running wind sprints! Take a look at the firts two weeks in the NFL.

    WEEK 1 – Players first experience real, game hitting, they get banged up.
    WEEK 2 – Players, already dinged up, get INJURED during the games. NOT HURT, INJURED.

    The Media, the Liberal idiots, the schools, etc. have participate in the Chinus Virus fear spreading and are paying the consequences. SO, F OFF greedy MF’ers.


    • art thiel

      Not sure I follow all of this, but the sports-industrial complex is acting out of its self-interest, which I get. The pros have unions to help protect players, and all have mutually agreed on health and safety protocols in order to proceed.

      The college kids have no such protections, and involuntarily must trust the schools to have their best interests in mind. I am skeptical of the schools, all in some degree of financial peril, always acting in the best interests of those employed in their entertainment division.

  • 1coolguy

    No doubt Trump is at the bottom of this – I’m sure he called all the university presidents, coaches and state governors with threats.
    Hey, just trying to continue the much-believed theme.