At least we’ve established for sure who the real essential workers are around here.

It’s the football team.

The only big question left unanswered is: When are we going to start paying them?

The decision last week by the University of Washington and other big West Coast universities to revive their football seasons is one of those “this is who we really are” moments, of the type that the coronavirus uncomfortably keeps exposing.

The gist was that the Pac-12, the league for the schools, had in August canceled all fall sports due to the health threat. The universities reversed course and reinstated football after setting up a system of daily, rapid-turnaround COVID-19 testing for all players that should greatly help contain any virus spread.

The testing machines have arrived, and now players can get on-the-spot antigen results in 15 minutes or less, every day, as a sort of general screening. They’ll also get a more comprehensive PCR test swab once per week, or sooner if one of the quick tests comes up positive.

The sports people dubbed this system a “game changer,” and if it works, they are right. You’d no longer have to wait — often for days as we do now — to know whether you’re contagious, so it could substantially lower the risks of pretested people gathering in tight spaces.

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Summed up the UW Daily student newspaper: “The instant results will potentially decrease, or completely eliminate, disease spread on the field and reduce the chance of an outbreak within a given team.”

“It’s like we just won the lottery,” Jimmy Lake, the UW coach, said.

That is … awesome! Just imagine what a few of these machines could do for a school, or a day care center, or a fruit-picking operation in Eastern Washington. More to the point for the UW, imagine what it could do for their own students, who want to get back to chemistry labs or the photography studio or the library.

“Based on the protocols outlined within University of Washington COVID-19 Safe Start Phases, libraries buildings will remain closed,” the UW wrote in an update to students, who begin classes this week that will be almost entirely online.

So football gets rapid testing, and is open. Libraries and chem labs and lecture halls don’t, so are closed. (There is optional PCR testing available for UW students, the kind where you wait some days for the result.)

This is no small thing. I looked up the plans for the fall chemistry courses at the UW, and even the hard-core hands-on lab sections are remote this quarter, according to the UW course schedule. Physical Chemistry Lab, Organic Chemistry, Biomolecular Analysis – these are all courses where you work with instruments directly in order to measure chemical reactions. I was a chemistry major in college, and have no doubt kids can learn the theory of all just fine online. But a virtual lab simulation isn’t a full replacement for real chemistry any more than the Xbox NCAA video game is a stand-in for Saturdays at Husky stadium.

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Couldn’t rapid results testing be a game-changer for the chemistry students, too?

Reporting out of the Pac-12 meetings suggested the universities are acutely aware of this glaring disparity – and are worried about it, though maybe not for the reasons you’d think.

“The argument is that football players,” wrote The Bootleg, a Stanford University sports site, “should not receive preferential treatment over other students – and in this case, very simply, be allowed on campus to participate in a university activity when other students are not.”

That sounds … reasonable. But then the story went on:

This granting of “professional-like benefits” could be “viewed as another step in student-athletes moving toward being compensated for playing college sports, and Stanford is vehemently committed to student-athletes retaining their amateur status.”

Ah, so the principal hang-up here isn’t that other students necessarily deserve equality with football. It’s that people might realize that big-time college football is indistinguishable from a pro sport — and then we might have to pay the players.

In the UW’s defense, they found a potential path out of a jam that was threatening many millions of lost revenue. Rightly or not, there has also been intense pressure from the public to just play. So, here’s hoping the daily rapid football testing works, and that it’s then just as rapidly expanded to all the non-entertaining parts of our flagship university. Like, ahem, chemistry.

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Also here’s hoping the Huskies go undefeated.

But the larger frustration is that by now, had this pandemic been made a national focus, we could have already had tens of millions of rapid response tests available per day in America. Along with N95 masks, which we also don’t have, this could have put us well along to reopening schools and the economy, according to Harvard researchers.

We could all feel like we won the lottery.

Instead, this week, eight months in, the news is that we’re still struggling to even get enough rapid testing into the pandemic’s ground zero, nursing homes.

Compared to all that, choosing to fix football first sure seems like something straight out of the last days of the Roman empire.