The week of the Apple Cup, when Washington State said it couldn’t field a team to play Washington for the first time since World War II because of an outbreak of COVID-19, the Huskies football team that Friday had its first positive test for the virus.
Eighteen days later — the day the long-awaited vaccines arrived at UW Medical Center — we learned that infections and related quarantines spread so thoroughly through the Huskies and staff, including leaving “zero offensive linemen” able to play, according to coach Jimmy Lake Monday, that UW couldn’t field a team to play USC in the Pac-12 Conference championship Friday night.
So they bailed on the game.
“I know it’s devastating news to our team,” Lake said.
Nor could they play Oregon the past Saturday to decide the North Division championship on the field, instead of by papal decree from Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott.
“Our offensive line is completely gone,” Lake said in a Zoom conference. “We cannot play. We cannot practice.”
So much for the idea in early September that the innovation of rapid-turnaround testing, touted by Scott in a deal with a San Diego biotech firm, was going to be the technology breakthrough to allow the conference to play a shortened, but legitimate, seven-game, conference-only championship season.
“Simply put, it’s a game changer,” Scott told reporters. “This ability, to have daily testing with immediate results, is a huge step forward for us.”
Define huge, Larry.
As of Monday with a week to go, one team, UCLA, has played six games. Some have played five, some four, some three. One team, Washington, had all home games. One team, Washington State, had one home game. One team, Stanford, was kicked off its campus and is couch surfing. Arizona State didn’t play for almost a month. Arizona lost its rival game 70-7. Oregon is going to the title game having not won its division.
These resultant events don’t sound like a huge step for anyone, unless it’s a drunk at the top of the stairs.
A huge step would have been having the vaccines by Labor Day, not Christmas. That would have prevented the disease. Rapid testing was a small step, and obviously did not stop the spread, even though it may have slowed it a bit.
Scott can call Friday’s game between Oregon and USC a championship if he wants. It’s his employer. But so much about this season lacks the usual integrity of sports fairness and balance.
What we likely will never know, because the schools are hiding behind the shield of student privacy, is what players were missing from which rosters for COVID reasons that could have altered game outcomes. We have to take the word of the schools when it comes to decisions about which players were quarantined because of close contact, and which were overlooked because he was a 100-yard runner or a dominant pass rusher.
That absence of transparency has been around college sports awhile, and became acute with the virus. The unintended consequence is it’s harder to care and easier to be cynical about which team gets handed a trophy from Scott Friday night in Los Angeles.
Lake’s limited description Monday, his first pullback of the lead curtain around his program, indicated at least there no major health issues.
“The team members that have tested positive are are doing well,” he said. “They have mild symptoms, and nothing extremely serious.”
I want to believe Lake. But the ruthless nature of his profession causes me to wonder: What does a football coach call extremely serious?
“I really want the focus to be, first and foremost, about helping the safety of our players and our staff,” he said. “Thankfully, they’re on the road to recovery.”
Well, that sounds good. But the interview quickly turned to his eagerness to have a bowl game.
After declaring a no-contest against Oregon, after having to beg out of the title match 36 hours after Scott awarded them the North Division, Lake was unabashed about scrounging up an exhibition game.
“When we have consecutive days here of not having positive cases in our footprint, and then also getting back the players that have tested positive in the last couple of weeks, along with the guys in contact tracing that are quarantined, we’ll be able to get those guys back resume football activities,” he said. “I know our team is excited for the potential of a of a bowl game here in the next couple of weeks.”
That’s nice for those players affected. But what about the others so far unaffected?
Since neither Lake nor Rob Scheidegger, UW associate athletic director for health & wellness, who was also on Zoom, identified any source of the outbreak or a solution for it, it’s hard to see what is going to be different between now and perhaps the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio Dec. 29.
Last week, Washington reported 11 active positive cases in the entire athletics department, including staff, six more than the previous week. No specific number is provided for any sport. The next update is Wednesday, which likely will show an increase, given the evidence that forced the grim decision to bail out of a championship game.
Lake seemed to understand that, in the near term, there is not much more that can be done to keep safe the college students in their charge.
“Unfortunately, this virus is just . . . it’s wicked, and it’s extremely infectious,” he said. “We’re seeing that right now, and we have been seeing that for months now with other teams that have felt the veracity of this thing. This virus is just spreading across the whole country. It doesn’t cherry pick where it’s going to go and where it’s not going to go. It goes everywhere.
“Our guys did a fantastic job, and they continue to do a really good job of doing all the stuff our medical team has advised them to do.”
That salute may be deserved, but the earnest efforts weren’t good enough to stop the virus from canceling three Huskies games, and many others around the conference and country. The virus dodged the Montlake defenses, it pump-faked Scott’s technology solution, and it loves college campuses.
According to intensive data research by the New York Times through Friday, more than 85 colleges have reported at least 1,000 cases over the course of the pandemic, and more than 680 colleges have reported at least 100 cases. In Washington, 41 campuses have reported 3,671 cases.
A bowl game? Now? In a business enterprise that lacks so much transparency regarding public health?
“This is what we do,” Lake said. “We coaches coach and our players play.”
I get that. But in a conference with a rich academic tradition at many schools, is there a still a place for thinkers to think?