We're getting a Pac-12 2020 Football Season?!?!

Breaking down how Pac-12 football might return, and all of the complications that come with it.

Hey everybody! Remember back to August 11th? The calendar math is telling me that it was merely 5 weeks ago, but it damn well feels longer. That was when the Pac-12 and Big-10 both announced the cancellation of the 2020 football season, with the possibility of a 2021 spring season.

Well, here we are just slightly more than a month later, and the Big 10 has already announced that they will indeed attempt to have a 2020 football season starting October 24th. And I think it’s exceedingly likely that the Pac-12 will follow along in short order.


Looks like!

What changed? Here’s a quick primer catching you up on why the Big-10 reversed course, and why the Pac-12 likely will:

Availability of rapid testing

This is, by a wide margin, the most important reason why the Big-10 and the Pac-12 are comfortable attempting to have a season. Without rapid testing, one sick athlete could easily infect a large swath of a locker room, leading to multiple game cancellations and potential legal liability if any athletes suffered health consequences. But per The Athletic reporting on the Big-10, rapid testing:

. . . will allow each school, by the end of September, to test all of its fall sport athletes daily. That means coaches and athletic directors can ensure that every athlete who steps onto a field has tested negative for COVID-19 that day, right before practice or competition.

This is the same rapid testing the Pac-12 announced with much fanfare two weeks ago. Beyond the obvious goal of preventing player-to-player spread, I’d bet university lawyers are pretty jazzed that they can argue that if anybody gets infected, it won’t be from football activity.

A medical plan for Myocarditis

I’m not going to get into the medical specifics because I’m no cardiologist, but both the Big-10 and Pac-12 seem confident in their ability to evaluate and identify any athletes at risk of cardiac complications such that they will be held out of action for further evaluation.

Permission from state and local government to hold a season

The Big-10’s decision making process has been heavily leaked, reported, and dissected. But I have no doubt that Pac-12 decision makers have been equally hard at work trying to find a way to have a season. So why did the Big-10 get here first? Because California and Oregon had rules in place don’t explicitly ban football but make preparing to play functionally impossible. This led to a hilarious-in-retrospect round of blame-passing from various folks involved:

All of the back-and-forth reads exactly like how I would expect communication to go between one party that doesn’t consider this issue a priority and another party that didn’t expect to be able to make things work as of, say, 48 hours ago. Regardless, it all got worked out pretty quickly as these things go:

In case you’re having trouble reading the tiny font, here’s your summary: Any relevant governmental authority is OK with us playing sports (read: football).


What about the city of Berkeley?

Also included in the Pac-12’s various news releases today:

Our California and Oregon universities will now each individually reach out to their relevant county public health officials to achieve clarification on what is required to receive the same clearance to resume contact practice and competition.

I don’t think anybody yet knows how easy or hard this step will be. But something tells me that what an organization has been given explicit permission to do a thing by the governor’s administration, they’re probably not going to get serious opposition from the local level. My guess is that each school will have to file some sort of paperwork with a plan for virus prevention and detection before getting the OK.

So we’re probably doing this. Is this going to work?

I guess we must first define success. If success is playing Pac-12 football games, well, I think that’s exceedingly likely to happen. If success is something akin to a complete schedule that crowns a legitimate-feeling conference champion that might have a shot at an NCAA playoff spot . . . well that’s a bit more up in the air.

The 2020 college football season is barely two weeks old and already multiple teams who are attempting to play a season have had games delayed or cancelled. Additionally, multiple games have been directly impacted by players who couldn’t suit up due to positive tests or quarantines for potential exposure.

While the Pac-12 may indeed put together a state-of-the-art detection system, virus detection is different than virus spread prevention. It’s a virtual guarantee that some (likely all) teams will have players on the roster get the virus in-season. It’s just a question of how many, and to what extent they expose other players. Maybe it will just be a handful and they’ll be caught early and games can still go on. Maybe some teams will lose a game or two. We don’t know til we try, so batten down the hatches and prepare for rocky roster news.

Meanwhile, Jon Wilner had a good breakdown of the Pac-12’s place within the larger college football world:

The statement came at 4 p.m. and ended a furious day of news that began with the Big Ten’s announcement that it will begin an abbreviated football season on the weekend of Oct. 23-24.

Whether the Pac-12 can restart that quickly is uncertain . . .

The first Saturday of November could be more realistic, with a six-game regular season culminating with the Pac-12 championship on Dec. 19.

With only seven or eight games on its resume, the champion probably wouldn’t be considered for the College Football Playoff.

If we’re looking at this solely through the lens of playing football, that’s still better than nothing. It allows the players and coaches who desperately want to play to have a season-like-substance, and it allows athletic departments to keep at least some percentage of sweet sweet football cash flowing. Whether or not YOU as a fan find this legitimate and satisfying is completely up to you.

Any basketball news?

Yeah - the NCAA announced that the basketball season will start November 25, ensuring that you’ll have a pleasant distraction from Thanksgiving dinner if you hate watching the Cowboys. This conflicts with the Pac-12’s stated start date of January 1st, but considering everything that has changed since then, it certainly seems probable that the Pac-12 will revise their start date to match.

What about Olympic sports? Are they going to play games too?

I have seen not one whisper of an answer to this question. One wonders how athletic departments would survive a Title IX lawsuit if football and MBB played and nobody else does, so I can’t help but think that olympic sports would start right along side football whenever they announce a season start date. Does the Pac-12 have testing capacity to offer rapid testing to all sports? Do athletic departments have the money to run olympic sports with so much of their football revenue diminished? I have no clue and nobody in the media seems to know either.

Will this end amateurism?

It should! But it won’t, at least not directly. Check out this telling exchange at a Big-12 press conference:

Reporter: [Asks devastating question]
Northwestern Athletic Director: Great question! [Doesn’t answer question]

The question went unanswered because it’s obvious to everyone why football players get rapid testing and nobody else does. College football players are employees who make their employers massive $$$. It is that and no other reason.

Only two things will ever end amateurism. One would be direct legislation from elected representatives, and the other is collective action from revenue athletes. The steam seems to have gone out of the sails from collective athlete action, as the desire to play football and improved medical oversight overwhelmed other concerns.

On the political front, the NCAA is still appearing in front of congress, with typically maddening results:

Everybody knows that the best way to improve the rights of employees is to exempt the organization that controls/employs them from labor laws! What a wonderful, good faith argument from our Husky representative!

Is this the morally right thing to do?

The key question: To what extent does playing college football impact the spread of COVID-19 as compared to the alternative of not playing?

I think it’s reasonable to assume that players and staff will actually be more safe than the general public thanks to the resources that conferences will dedicate towards allowing a season to happen. Of course, that’s thanks to athletes getting testing and medical resources that generally aren’t available to the public, let alone fellow students.

Ultimately, playing college football with all of the restrictions and resources the Pac-12 will bring to bear probably will have a comparatively negligible impact on COVID-19 spread compared to all of the other non-essentially activity the United States brought back months ago, without rapid testing.

No, morally, I don’t think that college football is important enough to justify allocating those resources to ensure a season happens. But, on the bright side, at least we’re not endangering the athletes to do so!* Ultimately, on my list of current moral outrages, this one is pretty, pretty low.

*Well, no more than the usual physical dangers of playing a football game.

In short, if you’re jazzed about the possibility of Cal football on Halloween, I don’t think you need to feel guilty. And if you’re uneasy about this season, I don’t think you should feel like a kill joy. It’s a complicated world out there, and the powers that be are making decisions without nearly enough information to really, truly, know what the right course of action is.

So, if we get Cal football, I’ll be sitting on my couch, thankful for a few hours of fun with the Bears.