Eleven days after the Pac-12 Conference introduced a 10-game, conference-only fall football schedule for the 2020 season, all athletic competitions have been shut down until at least Jan. 1, 2021. The vote from Pac-12 presidents Tuesday was unanimous.
The conference’s news release stated that “when conditions improve, it would consider a return to competition for impacted sports after Jan. 1, 2021.”
Until then, the longest offseason in modern college football history continues.
“Today is an extremely difficult day for Husky Athletics. This decision impacts so many people, especially our student-athletes and coaches, and my heart goes out to each of them,” Washington athletics director Jen Cohen said in a statement. “… We will continue to work tirelessly to give these students, and all of our students, an opportunity to compete this year. Our commitment to provide an environment for our students to thrive holistically — physically, mentally, academically and socially — does not change.
“Though this is a disappointing day, we are supportive of the decision made by the Pac-12 CEOs in consultation with the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Committee and Pac-12 ADs which prioritized the health and well-being of all involved.”
“While WSU supports this decision, there is a profound sadness and disappointment for our fall sports student-athletes, coaches and staff,” Washington State athletics director Pat Chun added in a news release. “… This year continues to be a winding road with unforeseen twists and turns.”
The Pac-12 won’t walk that road alone. The Big Ten also voted to postpone its fall sports season Tuesday. The Mid-American and Mountain West conferences opted to cancel their fall seasons in the past three days as well. The Southeastern Conference, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference currently are moving forward with a fall football season.
On a media webinar Tuesday afternoon, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott confirmed there were discussions surrounding further delaying or compressing the fall season, but “we came to the conclusion reluctantly that there’s no indication things are likely to change in terms of the criteria that influenced this in the next few weeks.”
He added that the seismic loss of revenue associated with this decision “did not even come up in the conversation today with our presidents and chancellors. Obviously there are very significant impacts. But the health and safety is the first obligation and duty and the primary focus.”
Both Scott and Oregon president Michael Schill also asserted that Pac-12 programs will not explore other options for games outside the conference this fall.
Pac-12 athletes impacted by the fall seasons postponement will continue to have their scholarships honored. Additionally, the official release Tuesday stated that the conference “strongly encourages that the NCAA grant students who opt out of competition this academic year an additional year of eligibility.”
For the time being, each Pac-12 program is permitted to continue 20 hours of weekly meetings and walk-throughs with athletes and coaches. But Scott reiterated that “we can’t bubble our student-athletes like pro sports can.” And the Pac-12 Medical Advisory board, as well as the conference’s presidents, were ultimately uncomfortable with the prospect of full-contact practices and competitions.
“Essentially, by going into a contact season (we’d be) asking them right now to disregard a lot of the guidelines both federally and locally from the health department and the CDC to socially distance and physically distance to decrease the spread of this disease,” said Dr. Doug Aukerman, Oregon State’s senior associate athletics director.
The presidents’ vote comes one day after the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Board presented a document to Scott cautioning against the initiation of contact practices of competition. The document listed the following three prominent medical issues preventing Pac-12 play:
- Community prevalence remains very high in much of the Pac-12 footprint and traveling to many places is likely unsafe, particularly on commercial aircraft.
- We are concerned about health outcomes related to the virus. Among these, there is new and evolving information regarding potential serious cardiac side effects in elite athletes. We do not have enough information to understand the short and long-term outcomes regarding these health issues.
- Testing capacity needs to increase to allow for more frequent testing, performed closer to game time, and with more rapid turn-around time to prevent spread of infection and enhance the safety of all student-athletes, coaches, and staff involved, particularly in situations where physical distancing and mask wearing cannot be maintained. This will require access to significant capacity of point-of -care testing and rapid turn-around time, which is currently very limited.
Regarding the “potential serious cardiac side effects in elite athletes,” ESPN published a story Monday afternoon stating that myocarditis — a rare heart inflammation that could be linked to COVID-19 — has been found in at least five Big Ten athletes as well as several athletes in other conferences, according to two sources with knowledge of the athletes’ medical care.
Dr. Jonathan Drezner — director of the UW Medicine Center for Sports Cardiology and a UW team physician — gave voice to those concerns in a phone interview with The Times on Monday night.
“We’re hearing from colleagues at other Power Five institutions who are finding cases of myocarditis in their athletes who had asymptomatic or mild (COVID-19) infections,” said Drezner, who represents UW on the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Board. “It has really raised a concern within the medical community that there’s just a lot of unanswered questions that we need to learn more about as we think about sports.”
According to Drezner — the team physician for UW men’s basketball, track and field and cross-country, who also works with the Seattle Seahawks and OL Reign — myocarditis is responsible for roughly 9% of sudden cardiac deaths in college athletes. It can also cause rapid or abnormal heart rhythms or scar tissue in the heart.
“It’s tremendously disappointing to reach this point,” UW president Ana Mari Cauce said in a statement of the postponed fall seasons, “but the continued spread of the coronavirus around the country, plus the new questions being raised about its potential health effects, forced our hand.”
The Pac-12 Medical Advisory Board’s document also included the following criteria that its programs must meet to potentially return to play:
- COVID-19 is not actively spreading uncontrolled among the school community
- Access and ability to complete cardiac evaluations on those who do test positive for COVID-19
- Testing access and capacity to satisfy testing recommendations, including the ability to test within 24 hours of competition and have results prior to that competition
- Capability to isolate new positive cases and quarantine high-risk contacts.
- Adequate local health care capacity as determined by local public health officials
- Ability to provide adequate care for the institution’s student-athletes
But, even as conference seasons are increasingly swept away, there continues to be discussion surrounding the viability of a fall college football season. Dr. Cameron Wolfe — an infectious disease specialist at Duke and chair of the ACC’s medical advisory team — told Sports Business Daily on Tuesday that he believes football can be played (relatively) safely.
“You have to feel some level of comfortable playing in a non-zero risk environment,” Wolfe acknowledged. “You can’t tell me that running onto a football field is supposed to be a zero-risk environment. Look at all of the regular sporting injuries that we accept as a certain level of risk as part and parcel of football. Now the reality is that we have to accept a little bit of COVID risk to be a part of that.”
And if the ACC, SEC and Big 12 do carry on with fall football seasons, there’s some question whether its coaches might look to the Pac-12 to poach prospective players.
To which Arizona State athletics director Ray Anderson essentially said: good luck.
“I think our coaches are very confident. Our medical folks are very confident. I think all of us are very confident that we made a decision with our presidents and chancellors in the best interest of our student-athletes, and that will be appreciated,” Anderson said in the webinar Tuesday. “Because we will play again. To the extent that others think that there’s an opportunity to essentially recruit our players, we would say, ‘Hey, have at it.’
“We’re not going to change what’s important to us, which is protecting our student-athletes, worried about whether others want to come and essentially entice our student-athletes away. We think our student-athletes will appreciate that we have done what is in their best interest short and long term, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
But is Tuesday’s result best for the athlete, or the athlete’s institution? It’s worth wondering how much weight was placed on the understanding that a canceled football season also frees each university of any liability it would have shouldered if an athlete experienced negative physical effects of COVID-19.
“So we have responsibilities and accountability. The science and the medicine says, ‘We cannot allow you to go forward right now.’ So we won’t.”
Still, Anderson didn’t hesitate to nix that narrative.
“Our responsibilities are not about liabilities,” Anderson said. “Our responsibility is about accountability to these student-athletes and their families – short and long term. So we can’t waive our duties and obligations to protect them, driven by the science and the medicine. We’re not driven by lawyers who say, ‘Well, we’ll relieve you of liability.’ That’s not what floats the boat in this conference.”
For the first time since 1918, Washington won’t go forward with an official football season. No debut for Jimmy Lake. No Michigan or Oregon. No Apple Cup on the Friday after Thanksgiving. No sailgating on fall Saturdays outside of Husky Stadium.
No cross country or soccer or volleyball, either.
At least, for now.
“We remain committed to providing the greatest experience possible for our players,” Lake said in a statement. “We will continue to train and prepare and, when the medical experts determine the season can begin, the University of Washington Football Team will be ready to compete.”