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.”

By Wednesday afternoon, state officials from both California and Oregon issued comments to indicate it is unlikely governmental restrictions will prevent a Pac-12 season from taking place.

Roughly five hours after Scott’s statement was released, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said there is nothing in the state guidelines that prevents the Pac-12 from resuming, however he cited a scenario that seemingly contradicted that assertion.

“We put out, I think, thoughtful guidelines and again, in partnership with the NCAA, about cohorting during workouts and practices,” Newsom said. “Now this manifests very differently depending on the sport. Basketball cohorting of up to 12 may be a little easier than football up to 12, but offensive teams, defensive teams, are able to coordinate and practice and the like.”

Newsom, who was not asked a follow-up question in the news conference, did not explain how state rules that limit cohorts to 12 would permit a football game of 11 players on each side, in addition to officials, coaching staffs and players on the sidelines could take place. He said he discussed the situation during a phone call with Scott earlier in the day and also did not address local regulations that must be adhered to.

“We’re committed to working with the Pac-12, working with the NCAA, to keep our kids safe, to keep our coaches safe, to keep the coaching staff and friends and families safe and to keep the larger campus community safe,” said Newsom, who played college baseball at Santa Clara. “Remember, these are student-athletes and they’re not isolating in a bubble as some of our NBA superstars are. They need to be integrated in one way, shape or form with an academic paradigm by definition. That’s what student-athletes are supposedly all about.”

Representatives from both Oregon State and Oregon met with the Oregon Health Authority Wednesday afternoon to discuss the safety plans for the football teams, according to a spokesperson for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.

“The universities have asked for an exemption to OHA’s sports guidance, just as Oregon’s professional sports team have been given,” spokesperson Charles Boyle said. “We have granted that request, and, under the new guidance, OHA must receive written plans for approval.”

“Let me stress that, up to this point, we have received no written plans from the Pac-12 for the upcoming season, and we have no details from the conference about their new rapid testing proposal. Until we have those details, we can’t move forward in the process.”

The sports exemption for Pac-12 schools will also require visiting schools from out of state to submit, “protocols to the (OHA) and the Governor’s office to ensure training, competition and play aligns with all public health guidance and county phase requirements.”

The Pac-12 did not have an immediate response to comments from either state.

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.

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 Newsom asking for the state to ease public health restrictions, which would clear the way for a possible return.

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis and receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown were scheduled to discuss the letter with reporters in a video press conference Wendesday, but it was cancelled after Newsom’s press conference in order to await more clarity.