In what undoubtedly was one of the darkest days for the conference since its inception in 1915, then as the Pacific Coast Conference, the Pac-12 announced Tuesday it would postpone sports until Jan. 1, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep through the West Coast.
Tuesday’s decision means for the first time in more than 70 years, Washington State won’t be playing football in the fall, as the Pac-12 targets a spring model that would still allow its member schools to squeeze in some variation of a season before the 2020-21 academic year is over.
What’s the possibility of that happening? What would the financial damage be if it didn’t? And how can Pac-12 schools safely return to competition in the middle of a global pandemic?
We examine those questions and a few of the other ones facing WSU and the Pac-12 in the wake of Tuesday’s announcement.
1) How feasible is spring football anyway?
Remove COVID-19 from the equation and the concept of a spring football season still presents a series of issues that Pac-12 presidents, athletic directors and coaches will spend the next four months poring over.
First and foremost, there are countless health and safety issues tied to playing 20 football games in a calendar year – and potentially more for a few dozen that would wrap up their college career with eight to 10 games in the spring and potentially play 16-20 more in the NFL almost seven months later.
Former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, a college football television analyst for FOX, was one of many to scoff at that idea on Tuesday.
“No chance,” Meyer said, via 247Sports.com. “You can’t ask a player to play two seasons in a calendar year. When I first heard that, I said that. I don’t see that happening, when I hear that. The body, in my very strong opinion, is not made to play two seasons within a calendar year. That’s 2,000 repetitive reps and football’s a physical, tough sport. So I don’t, really don’t, see that happening.”
What about the quality of play?
Already, many of the country’s elite college football players have opted out of the season in order to begin the pre-NFL draft process, which begins in late January with the Reese’s Senior Bowl and continues in February and March with the scouting combine and campus pro days.
Some may feel they need to get more games on film in order to put themselves on the NFL’s radar, and therefore would play in the spring regardless, but others won’t be willing to risk injury and will opt out of the season for the same reason high-tier NFL prospects skip postseason bowl games.
Spring football could also be problematic for high school seniors who plan to graduate in the winter and enroll in college early. Many of those athletes in states such as California, Washington and Oregon – where high school football was postponed to the spring – have already pledged to skip their senior season in order to arrive on campus in January and partake in spring ball. What happens to spring ball now, and what happens to the early enrollees who’d use it as a way to jump-start their athletic/academic career?
2) Will the Pac-12 have better COVID-19 testing procedures in place by January?
We can say with some certainty COVID-19 won’t be completely eradicated by Jan. 1 and it’s unlikely a vaccine will be widely distributed by then. Coronavirus cases may dip enough in each of the five states that comprise the league’s footprint for medical experts to feel comfortable giving the Pac-12 a green light. But even then, the conference will need better testing protocols – something that was at the crux of the “#WeAreUnited” movement rolled out by a group of Pac-12 players on Aug. 2.
The Pac-12 will likely need to improve the frequency and uniformity of COVID-19 testing to ensure athletes feel safe traveling through the conference without compromising their health.
Multiple WSU players told The Spokesman-Review they felt comfortable with testing protocols in Pullman, but testing elsewhere in the Pac-12 hasn’t been as frequent.
“We’ve been doing a good job compared to many of my other colleagues around the Pac,” Cougars receiver Kassidy Woods said. “I’ve heard stories that it’s much worse than here at Washington State.”
“Some schools are testing every other week. Some schools are testing weekly,” teammate Dallas Hobbs said. “Then some schools tested only two times since they got back in June. It’s like, ‘What the heck?’ Then you see other people that are testing on a regular basis, but they’re doing self-tests. So some people might not be doing it right.”
The Pac-12 should use the next four months to iron out its testing protocols, ensure all 12 members are following the same protocols – perhaps by using third-party testing – and, when it becomes more widely available, adopt point-of-care (POC) testing to ensure accuracy and more rapid results.
3) Scholarships are guaranteed for now, but what about eligibility?
By Monday afternoon, the fate of the Pac-12 football season seemed all but decided, and many athletes already began thinking about its implications.
Jahad Woods, WSU’s all-conference senior linebacker, tweeted: “I’m just waiting on the eligibility news at this point.”
For hundreds of seniors and upperclassmen, this will be the most pertinent question over the next few days, or weeks, until the NCAA makes a decision. During a media webinar Tuesday, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said he’d support extension of eligibility for athletes who are losing a season, and the conference would be pushing the NCAA to arrive to a “swift” decision.
“We saw what happened in the spring,” Scott said, “and we are going to put our shoulder completely behind supporting our student-athletes if they don’t get to play a season, to have another year back.”
The NCAA’s Division I Council recommended Wednesday that those who had a season canceled or cut short by COVID-19, get “an extension of their five-year period of eligibility” and “an additional season of competition if they participate in 50% or less of the maximum number of competitions allowed in each sport by Division I rules.”
As it did for spring sports, the NCAA, if it decided to restore eligibility, would also have to allow teams to temporarily increase roster size to account for returning seniors, as well as incoming freshmen. If every senior on WSU’s current football team elected to return, the Cougars would be 13 scholarships over their normal limit.
In March, athletic director Pat Chun said funding spring scholarships would be a non-negotiable for the school, assuring all spring athletes would be able to return under their previous scholarship if they desired.
Chun will presumably view fall sports the same way, but there’s no doubt it adds another degree of financial strain to a department that’s already bleeding.
4) Can Washington State, already in mounds of athletic debt, recover financially?
It’s well-known that ex-WSU Athletic Director Bill Moos spent big on athletic facilities during his tenure with the Cougars. As a result of that and other financial shortfalls, the department’s cumulative deficit is expected to hit approximately $100 million by the end of the 2021 fiscal year.
Enter the COVID-19 pandemic, which already eliminated guaranteed NCAA Tournament revenue and now limits money-earning opportunities in the fall, be it via ticket sales, fundraising, merchandise sales or corporate sponsorships. In the 2020 fiscal year, WSU projected ticket sales and media rights alone would bring in more than $30 million.
The department’s highest earners have already taken pay cuts. Those cuts may have to be more substantial. Now WSU most likely will have to revisit the cost-cutting strategies that were viewed as a last resort in the spring. Will the athletic department have to cut positions or introduce furloughs? Will the school discontinue an Olympic sport or three?
The Pac-12 is considering a massive loan program that could net each school up to $83,000,000 if all 12 opted for the maximum amount, Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News reported last week.
5) What about the economic impact on a small college town like Pullman?
Technically, this question could’ve been posed regardless of Tuesday’s decision.
The large majority of undergraduate students at WSU aren’t returning to Pullman this fall as the school shifts to a virtual learning approach.
Even if the Pac-12 plowed forward with a football season, it likely would’ve been played without fans. Most, but not all, of the hotels and small, family-owned businesses in Pullman that rely on revenue generated by college students and Pac-12 football fans managed to survive the spring and summer, anticipating they’d capitalize on the fall like usual. Now they face another hurdle.
Nick Rolovich’s efforts in the spring to support local business were extraordinary. With luck, the WSU coach can inspire others to help defray the revenue losses that Pullman’s favorite eateries, bars and shops will suffer during a daunting fall.