BY Art Thiel 06:17PM 12/14/2020

Thiel: A Huskies bowl game in two weeks? Why?

Moments after he described the COVID-19 as “wicked,” forcing the Huskies out of the Pac-12 title game, coach Jimmy Lake wants a bowl game. Why? What will have changed?

Washington coach Jimmy Lake and freshman QB Dylan Morris, in a happier moment. / UW Athletics

The week of the Apple Cup, when Washington State said it couldn’t field a team to play Washington for the first time since World War II because of an outbreak of COVID-19, the Huskies football team that Friday had its first positive test for the virus.

Eighteen days later — the day the long-awaited vaccines arrived at UW Medical Center —  we learned that infections and related quarantines spread so thoroughly through the Huskies and staff, including leaving “zero offensive linemen” able to play, according to coach Jimmy Lake Monday, that UW couldn’t field a team to play USC in the Pac-12 Conference championship Friday night.

So they bailed on the game.

“I know it’s devastating news to our team,” Lake said.

Nor could they play Oregon the past Saturday to decide the North Division championship on the field, instead of by papal decree from Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott.

“Our offensive line is completely gone,” Lake said in a Zoom conference. “We cannot play. We cannot practice.”

So much for the idea in early September that the innovation of rapid-turnaround testing, touted by Scott in a deal with a San Diego biotech firm, was going to be the technology breakthrough to allow the conference to play a shortened, but legitimate, seven-game, conference-only championship season.

“Simply put, it’s a game changer,” Scott told reporters. “This ability, to have daily testing with immediate results, is a huge step forward for us.”

Define huge, Larry.

As of Monday with a week to go, one team, UCLA, has played six games. Some have played five, some four, some three. One team, Washington, had all home games. One team, Washington State, had one home game. One team, Stanford, was kicked off its campus and is couch surfing. Arizona State didn’t play for almost a month. Arizona lost its rival game 70-7. Oregon is going to the title game having not won its division.

These resultant events don’t sound like a huge step for anyone, unless it’s a drunk at the top of the stairs.

A huge step would have been having the vaccines by Labor Day, not Christmas. That would have prevented the disease. Rapid testing was a small step, and obviously did not stop the spread, even though it may have slowed it a bit.

Scott can call Friday’s game between Oregon and USC a championship if he wants. It’s his employer. But so much about this season lacks the usual integrity of sports fairness and balance.

What we likely will never know, because the schools are hiding behind the shield of student privacy, is what players were missing from which rosters for COVID reasons that could have altered game outcomes. We have to take the word of the schools when it comes to decisions about which players were quarantined because of close contact, and which were overlooked because he was a 100-yard runner or a dominant pass rusher.

That absence of transparency has been around college sports awhile, and became acute with the virus. The unintended consequence is it’s harder to care and easier to be cynical about which team gets handed a trophy from Scott Friday night in Los Angeles.

Lake’s limited description Monday, his first pullback of the lead curtain around his program, indicated at least there no major health issues.

“The team members that have tested positive are are doing well,” he said. “They have mild symptoms, and nothing extremely serious.”

I want to believe Lake. But the ruthless nature of his profession causes me to wonder: What does a football coach call extremely serious?

“I really want the focus to be, first and foremost, about helping the safety of our players and our staff,” he said. “Thankfully, they’re on the road to recovery.”

Well, that sounds good. But the interview quickly turned to his eagerness to have a bowl game.

After declaring a no-contest against Oregon, after having to beg out of the title match 36 hours after Scott awarded them the North Division, Lake was unabashed about scrounging up an exhibition game.

“When we have consecutive days here of not having positive cases in our footprint, and then also getting back the players that have tested positive in the last couple of weeks, along with the guys in contact tracing that are quarantined, we’ll be able to get those guys back resume football activities,” he said. “I know our team is excited for the potential of a of a bowl game here in the next couple of weeks.”

That’s nice for those players affected. But what about the others so far unaffected?

Since neither Lake nor Rob Scheidegger, UW associate athletic director for health & wellness,  who was also on Zoom, identified any source of the outbreak or a solution for it, it’s hard to see what is going to be different between now and perhaps the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio Dec. 29.

Last week, Washington reported 11 active positive cases in the entire athletics department, including staff, six more than the previous week. No specific number is provided for any sport. The next update is Wednesday, which likely will show an increase, given the evidence that forced the grim decision to bail out of a championship game.

Lake seemed to understand that, in the near term, there is not much more that can be done to keep safe the college students in their charge.

“Unfortunately, this virus is just  . . . it’s wicked, and it’s extremely infectious,” he said. “We’re seeing that right now, and we have been seeing that for months now with other teams that have felt the veracity of this thing. This virus is just spreading across the whole country. It doesn’t cherry pick where it’s going to go and where it’s not going to go. It goes everywhere.

“Our guys did a fantastic job, and they continue to do a really good job of doing all the stuff our medical team has advised them to do.”

That salute may be deserved, but the earnest efforts weren’t good enough to stop the virus from canceling three Huskies games, and many others around the conference and country. The virus dodged the Montlake defenses, it pump-faked Scott’s technology solution, and it loves college campuses.

According to intensive data research by the New York Times through Friday, more than 85 colleges have reported at least 1,000 cases over the course of the pandemic, and more than 680 colleges have reported at least 100 cases. In Washington, 41 campuses have reported 3,671 cases.

A bowl game? Now? In a business enterprise that lacks so much transparency regarding public health?

“This is what we do,” Lake said. “We coaches coach and our players play.”

I get that. But in a conference with a rich academic tradition at many schools, is there a still a place for thinkers to think?


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YourThoughts

  • Archangelo Spumoni

    Mr. Art
    “Instead of by papal decree from . . . Larry Scott.” Could have been
    “instead of by paypal decree , , , Larry Scott.” Interchangeable words there.

    Next, there are incompetent personnel in business, government, sports, the Drumpfh administration, and elsewhere, but at no point do I ever remember anybody being any worse than Brother Scott.

    The Drumpfh people are semi-excluded from this discussion because the line between incompetence and malevolence is blurry.

    • 1coolguy

      Typical tacky comment.
      Maybe you remember Dr Fauci predicted a vaccine would not be available until summer 2021, and even he has lauded the vaccine effort led by this administration.
      I can’t wait until Beijing Joe screws up and you people cover for him, Dean Man Walking.

      • Husky73

        Your medical degree from Trump University has failed you.

        • art thiel

          A Trump Vodka should help.

          • Husky73

            Followed by a delicious Trump Steak, and a quick flight on the Trump Shuttle for a few fun filled days at the Trump Taj Mahal…And, if 1cool wins big, he can make a donation to the Trump Foundation or sponsor a student at Trump University.

          • Archangelo Spumoni

            Mr. 73
            As of 12 days ago, Mango Mussolini had raised >$207.5M. This is an obsolete number but his loyal donors didn’t read any of the fine print; the money is destined for something far from what they thought.

          • Husky73

            The funds will pay for the legal bills of Trump and his crime family in the years ahead.

      • Brent Hannon

        do you really think the Trump administration had anything to do with the fast rollout of the vaccines? the Pfizer vaccine (the first one approved) was invented in Germany. I would credit science, and potential profit, for the vaccines, not politicians.

        • art thiel

          The German nationals given credit are also Turkish immigrants. The development of global vaccines was done despite, not because of, Trump.

      • Seattle Psycho

        The only thing the current admin did about the Pfizer vaccine is not buy enough. Now we have to wait behind all of the other competent countries to get more.

        • art thiel

          I’d enjoy getting back to the topic . . .

      • 2nd place is 1st loser

        Here you are once again defending your Dear Leader, he lost. Go away, nobody gives two $h!t’s about your lust for the orange man.

      • art thiel

        Dean Mean? More scholarships needed for the Trumpers.

        The administration did little but throw money, then stand in the way of both PPE production and preventive measures.

    • art thiel

      Scott had to try something, because he’s hired to create business opportunities for the schools by exploiting their unpaid student assets.

  • 1coolguy

    On the positive side, concerning football, this does give the ream more practice time for next year, which is a real advantage.

    • art thiel

      That’s what coaches always say. And it’s usually true, except when we have a pandemic.

    • 2nd place is 1st loser

      Ream?

  • jafabian

    It’s disappointing to hear how widespread COVID19 is among the Huskies when not too long ago they seemed to be a rare team that had followed protocol closely and successfully. Overall though continuing the season seems ridiculous. Why risk more possible exposure with more travel and another game? Especially with so many games missed already? It’s not easy to get up for a conciliatory bowl in a shortened season.

    • art thiel

      Infections are so random. Some who do everything right get the bug, and the some of the reckless skate. I can’t assign blame to anyone, other than to say the entirety of the enterprise that’s trying to sneak around the virus is futile.

  • Kevin Lynch

    Incisive essay. The perspective is appreciated. Thank you.

    • art thiel

      Thanks.

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  • DJ

    Thanks Art! Well done as always. Your neck muscles certainly must be getting a workout, shaking your head at the college sports leaders for so long.

    The ugly truth – money makes the smart thinkers stupid. It’s also always the case that when times are tough, some rise to the challenge, showing their true colors, and some just show their true colors. Before the college football season actually started, it seemed poor judgement to actually play football, at any level. The pros for the most part pulled it off fairly well. But college kids?? C’mon. Too many temptations, risks, too much fearlessness and no paycheck to lose.

    We had attributed the UW & Seahawks going on for so long without a COVID case to their proximity to the UW medical brain trust. Well, so much for those false laurels, for UW anyway. It was fun to see the 2020 squad, see the new QB grow under the few reps, and hear the youthful exuberance of Coach Lake. We got a glimpse of the future, and now they just need to be done. That believing that the PAC12 was going to do the right thing by cancelling the season shows how ignorant we believers were, based on Larry Scott’s track record. There is no championship – only more football games that risk the chance of COVID consequences.

    • art thiel

      I realize that colleges are stuck on the teat of TV revs, so each game produces revs that fund jobs. In the big picture, the long-term impacts of the pandemic with seriously damage all brick & mortar institutions, of which sports are a part. There’s going to be a massive reckoning coming about the place and role of big-time college sports. I tend to be more interested in that than a meaningless exhibition game in San Antonio.

      • Husky73

        (Eli Lapp) “Have you never held a teat before?
        (John Book) “Not one this big.”
        ‘Witness’– Harrison Ford

  • Alan Harrison

    It’s enough to think that maybe, just maybe — and I don’t know if anyone else has ever written this — Larry Scott is terrible at his job. I know: I’m surprised, too.

    This whole scenario is dangerous and ridiculous. Stop already.

    • art thiel

      Good anecdote. Many of us have a tendency to conflate what is enjoyable with what is necessary. We have little experience in global crises.

  • woofer

    “…it’s harder to care and easier to be cynical about which team gets handed a trophy from Scott Friday night in Los Angeles.”

    Certainly, if crowning a meaningful champion is the most important issue, then the season has been a farce from the get-go. A half-season larded with further cancellations could never satisfy any plausible standard for trophy award legitimacy.

    But maybe we should be looking at other things. For players coming to play college ball from low income inner city neighborhoods, their chances of staying healthy are probably far better in a UW dorm with a world class medical school complex a few blocks away than they would be hanging out at home. So that can’t be a real objection to playing the games.

    In the bigger picture, restoration of even a semblance of a competitive season has redeeming social value. The part of the pandemic that probably gets underreported is the broad mental health effects of a shut down society. Lots of people are out of work, running low on money, with nothing useful to do.

    To be sure, the jock culture fails to qualify as a high form of civilization, but for many males (and some females) it’s all they really care about. For them the opportunity to root for the home team lends an element meaning and excitement to an existence now suddenly devoid of other outlets for social engagement. Half a football season is better than none at all. Put an asterisk and a funky explanatory footnote next to the championship award and call it good. Oregon versus USC should be an entertaining game. I plan to watch it.

    • art thiel

      Plausible arguments, woofer. I do understand on the micro level, the value of practices/games for each player and coach. But developments of the past few weeks invalidate the notion of greater safety within the program than outside it. Aside from a complete pro style bubble that colleges can neither afford nor manage, the virus can’t be stopped, especially in its worst time. That’s why four ACC programs, as well as others such as Stanford and Kansas State, have withdrawn from bowl consideration. So far.

      Sure, we all crave entertainment during the shutdown. But not at the expense of college students, no matter how willing they are. As for me, I’m enjoying “Yellowstone.”

      • woofer

        Thanks, Art. I will gladly defer to your expertise on what is actually happening within PAC-12 programs. But, in theory, protecting the players adequately was achievable.

        I still believe that for a large cohort of alienated angry white males the loss of TV sports has adverse mental health effects — one more failing guard rail in a collapsing social structure. Junk food is better than no food at all.

        • art thiel

          I hadn’t thought of a correlation between low sports consumption and high adoption rates for QAnon conspiracies. Maybe Nick Saban is Q.

  • actually there were two teams in the Pac12 that played the full 6 game schedule, UCLA and OSU

  • bomberboy

    Art, excuse me but did you actually use these words…” this season lacks the usual integrity of sports fairness and balance.” I must have been absent, or in a coma when I should have been exposed to ” …the usual integrity of sports fairness and balance.” Are you kidding me/us????
    I love sports in general but the major institutions NCAA, NFL, NBA, MLB are pretty much all scum bag outfits. Trying to play any kind of season this year made no sense and resulted in a soup sandwich of a season. HOWEVER we have all frequently been ex-posed to what SHOULD HAVE HAPPENDED and the better , smarter way to make it all work. Not shockingly this brilliance has all come from sports media types. Where is all thata integrity and fainess when we need it?