Fires, COVID delay Pac-12’s return to football

In the wake of the news that the Big Ten will begin its football season the weekend of Oct. 24, the Pac-12 remains on standby, waiting for governmental restrictions in California and Oregon to be lifted before formalizing a return-to-play plan.

“At this time, our universities in California and Oregon do not have approval from state or local public health officials to start contact practice,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement Wednesday. “We are hopeful that our new daily testing capability can help satisfy public health official approvals in California and Oregon to begin contact practice and competition.”

Earlier this month, the conference entered into a deal with an FDA-approved test manufacturer to provide daily testing capabilities, which are expected to be operational in early October. If that capability leads to the approval for contact practices to begin, the Pac-12 is expected to use a six-week ramp-up period before it starts playing games, leading to a potential start date in mid-to-late-November, sources told ESPN.

A statement from the office of Oregon governor Kate Brown said its focus was on the response to the wildfires at the moment.

“When it comes to college football, we all want to see the Ducks and Beavers take the field again,” the statement from spokesperson Charles Boyle said. “The Oregon Health Authority is in the process of working with the universities to review their plans for team practices, to ensure the health and safety of players, coaches, and the wider university community.”

Stanford coach David Shaw told ESPN that while he hopes the new testing protocols will allow them to practice soon, “I don’t know that public health officials are going to be swayed by something that happens 3,000 miles away.”

“The thing we all lose sight of because we love our sports and we want to play our sports and we want to watch our sports is that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic,” Shaw said. “Our public health officials are not putting student-athletes above everybody else. It’s still about your county and hopefully our testing regimen, the practices that we put in place will be satisfactory to our local officials so that we can continue to progress towards playing football.”

In early August, the Pac-12 postponed all fall sports until at least Jan. 1 because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, and cited the need for rapid testing as part of the requirement to return safely. That announcement came hours after the Big Ten made the same decision.

Complicating the Pac-12’s return further are the wildfires on the West Coast that have resulted in some of the worst air quality in the world. Had the Pac-12 been scheduled to begin its season this past weekend, it’s possible several games would have been called off because of poor air quality on game day or because teams would have been unable to practice during the week.

“We are equally closely monitoring the devastating fires and air quality in our region at this time,” Scott said. “We are eager for our student-athletes to have the opportunity to play this season, as soon as it can be done safely and in accordance with public health authority approvals.”

On Tuesday, USC players posted a letter on social media to California Gov. Gavin Newsom asking for the state to ease public health restrictions, which would clear the way for a possible return.