Inside the Decision to Cancel the Cal v. Washington Football Game

Berkeley Public Health Division Covid-19 guidelines limited Cal's options

California Head Coach Justin Wilcox did not mince words on a Thursday evening call with Write for California and other media: “We didn’t request to cancel the game. We weren’t able to play the game.”

“I think that’s probably a poor choice of words,” Coach Wilcox added, referring to the Pac-12 Conference’s statement Thursday afternoon that said it approved a “request from Cal to cancel” Saturday evening’s home matchup against the Washington Huskies.

The Pac-12 Conference declared the game a no contest, and the matchup against Washington will not be rescheduled.

“Nobody here woke up this morning, you know, hoping not to play,” Coach Wilcox said plainly.

The Golden Bears’ football season is up to a rough start. The Pac-12 Conference was the last “Power Five” conference, a collection of the five most influential and richest athletic conferences in college sports, to restart its football, basketball and winter sports seasons.

Now, Cal will play at least one fewer game than its other league members after a football player tested positive for Covid-19 following a regularly scheduled antigen test, which was later confirmed by a PCR test this week.

The positive Covid-19 test activated a series of public health and safety protocols intended to limit the spread of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, most notably, the contact tracing required by the Berkeley Public Health Division, the city’s public health agency.

On Wednesday, Coach Wilcox told reporters a “significant” number of football players are now in self-quarantine because of the city’s contact tracing requirements.

Today, the head football coach revealed that at least one entire position group was affected, which dropped the Golden Bears below the Pac-12 Conference’s minimum thresholds of position players to field a team. The minimum number is 53 scholarship players or at least four defensive linemen, seven offensive linemen or one quarterback.

Coach Wilcox would not name the affected player group, stating only that substitutions and other adjustments were not possible at this position, but The Mercury News, citing unnamed conference sources, reported Thursday evening the affected group is the defensive line.

“We had zero [players in this position] at practice for the last three days, and it wasn’t feasible to put a team out there,” Coach Wilcox noted.

The affected football players who are now in self-quarantine have continued to test negative for Covid-19, according to the head football coach.

Local public health requirements require a self-quarantine of 14 days from the last date that they were in contact — defined as someone within six feet for more than 15 minutes or someone in close contact, such as a roommate — with a person with Covid-19. Many Cal football players must self-quarantine because they live together as roommates or have regular close contact at practices or team meetings.

The California Golden Bears are unique because the team is governed by public health and safety protocols at the city, county, state, university and conference levels. No other “Power Five” football program in the country has to work around as many guidelines as Coach Wilcox’s program.

“I think the frustrating part is you see the differences throughout the country and throughout the state... on how these contact tracing processes are taking place. I think that’s where the... players especially, can get a little bit frustrated, as you can imagine, [because] there’s no consistency there,” Coach Wilcox described.

“The one positive test resulted in several players being held out due to contact tracing. It’s done by the local public health office,” Coach Wilcox said, referring to the Berkeley Public Health Division whose public health emergency isolation and public health emergency quarantine orders restricted full practice earlier this week and match play Saturday.

The city of Berkeley is unique as it has its own public health agency separate from the surrounding Alameda County. Only Long Beach and Pasadena have city public health agencies in California.

The Golden Bears are scheduled to travel to Tempe, Ariz., next week to face off against the Arizona State Sun Devils. It is unclear whether the defensive line or other football players in self-quarantine who tested negative will join practice next week or play in the game next weekend. Indeed, California may need to cancel its second game if the football players must remain in self-quarantine for 14 days.

“I wish I knew,” a frustrated Coach Wilcox said. “This is not my decision, Cal football, certainly not our players’ decision. It’ll be determined through the public health office of Berkeley.”