Lots of intriguing developments lately suggest that there may be a way forward this fall for college football in the Pac-12 Conference. Then Louisiana State coach Ed Orgeron had to spoil it for all by doing something exactly opposite of everyone else in the industry.
He told the truth. What a knucklehead.
The day before the Big Ten Conference announced Wednesday it had improved its COVID-19 testing capacity sufficiently to begin an eight-game season Oct. 27, finishing Dec. 19 — the day before the CFB four-team playoff field is selected — Orgeron blabbed casually to reporters that his defending national champions were rife with the bug.
“Not all of our players, but most of our players have caught it,” he said. “I think that hopefully they won’t catch it again, and hopefully they’re not out for games.”
Asked to clarify, Orgeron had no specific data, but offered a semi-prognosis.
“Hopefully that once you catch it, you don’t get it again,” he said. “I’m not a doctor. I think they have that 90-day window, so most of the players that have caught it, we do feel like they’ll be eligible for games.”
Good to know what Orgeron “feels like,” in order to base a health policy affecting his athletes. But credit him with ignoring the fine print in the standard big-time coaching contract, the part where it says, “Since there is no money in the truth, parties agree to ignore it.”
Orgeron’s honest blurt seemed to catch the college football industry off-guard, as if it only wanted to hear about declining infection rates nationally. That national rates are coming down, but no one outside the LSU program knows whether the champs are a part of the trend or apart from it.
That’s because LSU doesn’t make public its test results, as is the case with the rest of the Southeastern Conference and many nationally, including five Pac-12 schools (UCLA, Utah, Oregon, Arizona State and Colorado).
In a story published Sept. 3 about an ESPN survey of the schools in the Power 5 conferences, about half refused to report what amounts to public health data to the public that funds the many public universities that play big-time football.
That is the acme of disingenuousness.
Obviously, the schools are hiding bad news. And they are hiding behind federal student privacy laws, which are not in play here. No schools’ disclosures are offering names of students, nor are media inquiries asking for student names. The purpose is to provide cumulative data to assess the spread of infection, a public health matter.
Schools don’t want to disclose what Texas Tech volunteered Monday, that its football program has had 75 positive tests since July. Wisconsin has paused football for two weeks. Florida has suspended baseball an lacrosse after 46 athletes combined were positive.
Two weeks into the college football season, 13 games have been postponed or canceled. Arkansas State played Saturday without nine starters, and canceled next Saturday’s game.
College campuses have become the engine driving COVID-19’s continuing impact in America. A USA Today survey discovered that of the 25 hottest outbreaks in the U.S., communities heavy with college students represent 19 of them.
In the county-by-county survey published Friday, No. 2 on the list was Whitman County, home to Washington State, which had 1,295 cases per 100,000. It was the only Pac-12 school listed in the top 25.
Sports advocates like to say that because of the safety protocols in place, athletes are safer within the athletic department than outside of it. That’s true to some extent, but most regular students are attending online and aren’t allowed on campus either. The students and athletes create super-spreader events by mingling off-campus, obviously, or Orgeron wouldn’t be sputtering his truths.
With the Big Ten’s capitulation to fan, player and political pressure for the re-vote to start next month, the Pac-12 was left as the only Power 5 conference with no plan to return. Even though it has signed up for point-of-care testing with a San Diego company, Quidel Corp., a diagnostic health care manufacturer of FDA-approved rapid tests, the breakthrough technology won’t be on campuses until Sept. 30.
Commissioner Larry Scott has said numerous times, including Wednesday, that he and the schools’ CEOs are in agreement that they will respect the mandates of state and local public-health officials. But one thing changed late Wednesday with news that the governors of California and Oregon were no longer opposing the resumption of practices for the six conference teams under their jurisdictions.
“The Pac-12 welcomes today’s statements by Governor (Gavin) Newsom of California and Governor (Kate) Brown of Oregon that state public health officials will allow for contact practice and return to competition,” Scott said in a statement Thursday, “and that there are no state restrictions on our ability to play sports in light of our adherence to strict health and safety protocols and stringent testing requirements, including our recently announced partnership with Quidel which will enable daily rapid results testing.”
The states’ permissions don’t mean a return has been green-lighted. County and local officials must be the final arbiters.
“Getting the local county approvals as soon as possible would allow our student-athletes and our coaches to start what we think of as normal practice,” Scott said Wednesday during an interview on ESPN’s SportsCenter. “And then the best-case scenario is six weeks of practice, training camp and starting (the season) end of October, early November. But that’s still subject to county approvals, which we don’t have yet.”
Answering a question about the Pac-12’s eligibility for the CFB’s playoffs, Scott said, “We’re behind the eight ball. There’s no question about that. But we determined early on, we’re only gonna play if we can do it safely and in a way that’s consistent with our medical professionals’ comfort level — that we’re not increasing the spread of this virus by playing football.
“So no doubt, we are behind others. But if we get the approvals rapidly, then we will be able to have a very meaningful season and be in the hunt.”
The Pac-12′ s CEO Group will meet Friday to discuss options. Also part of the discussion is the environmental crisis of wildfires and smoke plaguing the three West Coast states.
No season, or a season so short that it may deny the conference a spot in the playoff consideration, has led to some massive hand-wringing by fans and some in the media that the Pac-12 will suffer some monumental loss of prestige if it doesn’t have a fall season in some form as the other Power 5 conferences.
Sure, loss of revenues are substantial, and the loss of athletic opportunity for some athletes is irreplaceable. That was already underway.
But post-pandemic, whatever shape big-time college athletics retains, if any, will surely include Seattle, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and Phoenix, and every other pin in the map. At this crisis-pickled moment, the needs of colleges following twin disasters of fire and disease far outweigh the diversion of sports.
But while this plays out, the Pac-12 can do itself a favor by underscoring a single value: Transparency.
Scott needs to demand that all conferences disclose public health information about testing results. He also needs to say the quiet part out loud, explaining why he will not help create pressure on the politicians who stand with health science, unlike many of their peers nationally.
He needs to say the Pac-12 can’t afford litigation stemming from the death or long-term debilitation from COVID-19 of an athlete who was allowed to participate in sports, despite the declaration by governments of an unsafe environment. Everyone knows this truth, yet no one says it. Time to be a leader, Larry.
Maybe the politicians and athletics directors in the Big Ten states are bigger risk-takers. They can carry on with SEC pal Orgeron, pulling together patchwork teams and risking the health of players and coaches from cash-strapped institutions, through an annual fall flu season wrapped around a pandemic. All for a little near-term TV amusement and cash.
Or maybe they and the Pac-12 are scared of President Trump, who weighed in Wednesday at a press conference.
“I want to recommend that the Pac-12 also get going because there’s no reason why Pac-12 shouldn’t be playing now,” Trump said. “Pac-12, you’re the only one now. Open up. Open up, Pac-12. Get going.”
If science dictates, they should ignore the bullying. The Pac-12 can sit out this human and environmental debacle, and wait for a better day.