This day was telegraphed in the ominous comments of the movers and shakers in college sports, dating back to July or even earlier, if you cared to parse those remarks.
It was foreshadowed in the inability of the country in general, and too many Pac-12 communities in particular, to get a grip on coronavirus and its relentless spread.
And, in recent days, the growing concern of cardiologists over the potential long-term harmful effects of COVID-19 on the hearts of even healthy young athletes made Tuesday’s outcome all but a fait accompli.
Yet, the stark reality of the news that the Pac-12 conference is shutting down football, along with all other sports, until at least Jan. 1, still packed an emotional wallop.
In my heart of hearts, I knew it was almost certainly going to happen, especially after the Big Ten — which serves as a guide dog for the Pac-12 — made the same decision earlier in the day. Yet there was still disbelief that it had happened, which might be illogical but reflects the tumultuous times we live in.
My reaction, overwhelmingly, was not one of anger but rather sadness, with undertones of frustration. I selfishly lament that fall Saturdays will be immeasurably drearier; there’s nothing quite like the electricity of a college football game day on Montlake, and now we will have to wait until at least spring to experience that.
Mostly, though, I empathize with the athletes themselves, who have been stuck in a tense limbo for weeks now. They’ve been working out and yearning for the all-clear to fully embrace their season. But like the spring athletes before them, and perhaps more to come after them, all their hopes and ambitions have come to a crashing halt.
For many, it will inevitably spell the end of their collegiate competition. It’s hard to imagine that every NFL prospect would risk his pro status in a very problematic spring football season that sounds better as a concept than it does as a realistic option.
For some, depending on how eligibility decisions play out, and their own desire to persevere in what is now endless conditioning at the expense of getting on with their non-football lives, it could mean their sports career is over altogether.
Yet for all that anguish that no doubt is being felt in all corners of the UW athletic department, and in those around the conference, I can’t argue with the decision that was made.
I say that with no cocksure pronouncement that this was a no-brainer, and no smug put-downs of those who feel otherwise as being uncaring of the health and welfare of young men and women.
It was, at its core, an agonizing decision full of both nuance and unknowns. Billions of dollars were at stake. The ability of schools to maintain their athletic programs at full capacity is now in doubt. And never mind sports; the universities will feel the sting of this decision in academia for a long time.
The repercussions are vast. Many small college towns will wither without the influx of fans spending money at hotels, restaurants and bars. And in parts of this country, football is more than a diversion; it’s practically a religious experience. Its absence will be felt deeply.
That doesn’t even get into the anguish of the athletes themselves, who only have a finite amount of time to ply their talents. Or the fact that at least two other conferences, the SEC and the ACC, are looking at the same data, the same risks, and may decide to forge ahead anyway.
The frustration I alluded to earlier is over the fact that if we had a more coherent national strategy to control COVID-19, dating back to the spring, we wouldn’t be in this mess. And yet here we are. And in the end, the words that resonated most profoundly for me on Tuesday were those of Dr. Doug Aukerman, Oregon State’s senior associate athletic director, sports medicine, and chairman of the Pac-12 Student-Athlete Health and Well-Being Board.
He talked about the two things that nagged at all the doctors who worked on the question of whether to play. One was the prevalence of coronavirus in many Pac-12 communities. The other was the emerging data on myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, as a potential side effect of COVID.
“That’s how we began looking at how can we make sure we provide the safest opportunity in this environment for our student athletes to compete and to exercise when social distancing can no longer be maintained,’’ Aukerman said.
“We’re essentially, by going into a contact season, asking them right now to disregard a lot of the guidelines, both federally and locally, from the health department, the CDC, to socially distance and physically distance to decrease the spread of this disease. Instead, playing contact sports, we know, is a condition where it’s going to be higher risk of spread.”
Commercial travel was another concern, he said. So was stopping the spread of coronavirus if either a staff member or an athlete was infected.
“Once we started becoming more concerned about some of the side effects and some of the other health outcomes that we don’t know what the short and long-term consequences are yet, we felt we had to shift to a mindset of not just trying to stop spread, but we need to be able to identify and remove anybody who has coronavirus right away,’’ Aukerman said
“And that becomes incredibly difficult when you’re in a community where the spread is not controlled, or if it’s not under some type of ability to mitigate it.
“Because our student athletes are students. They’re going to go to the grocery store. They’re going to go to restaurants. They’re going to interact with the community, and we want them to. It’s not appropriate to think we can bubble them and isolate them. Therefore, we felt it was just very, very difficult to do this is in a way we thought was safe enough for our student athletes that we would support.’’
The chair of the ACC medical advisory group, Dr. Cameron Wolfe, came out Monday and said that he believes a fall season can be played safely. The Pac-12 doctors, as well as those of the Big-Ten, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference, and, much earlier, the Ivy League, determined otherwise.
Many will say politics are involved in these decisions, or money, or a last-ditch attempt by colleges to preserve the amateur model that is under siege suddenly by empowered athletes.
There’s probably truth in all of that. And no doubt those who crave college football will seize upon those doctors who are downplaying the risk of myocarditis. They’ll point to all the athletes tweeting, #WeWantToPlay. They’ll say that the safest place for a college athlete is ensconced with a team, with all the scrutiny and safeguards that entails.
Yet as one who has two children in the college-age range, I fall into the camp of respecting the unknown, when what is not known might mean long-term health ramifications, or even death. In case of a tie, better to err on the side of caution.
It’s a damn shame that means no college football this fall. The dreams being crushed right now are heartbreaking. There is no good answer. But, regretfully, this is the right answer.
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