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Howell: Pac-12 can’t afford to remain idle

Big Ten decision puts pressure on Pac-12 to reverse course and attempt return to football

BOULDER, CO - Nov. 23, 2019: ...
Cliff Grassmick/ Staff Photographer
BOULDER, CO – November 23, 2019: Colorado’s Dimitri Stanley gets a first down past Washington’s Asa Turner (20) during second half of the game in Boulder on November 23, 2019. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

The Pac-12 Conference lost its greatest ally on Wednesday.

Then, California Gov. Gavin Newsom dismissed one of Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott’s top reasons for the conference not playing football this fall – sort of.

Later in the day, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown provided a path for the Pac-12 schools in that state to move forward with football.

Ultimately, Wednesday’s developments left the Pac-12 on an island, with only two minor allies remaining, but opened the door for a quicker return to play.

When the Pac-12 and Big Ten canceled its fall sports seasons on Aug. 11, it seemed inevitable that their Power 5 peers would soon follow.

Instead, the ACC, Big 12 and SEC kept moving forward and, despite some COVID-19 setbacks, haven’t lost sight of playing football this fall. The ACC and Big 12 started playing last week, while the SEC kicks off next week.

Under pressure from coaches, players, parents and even U.S. President Donald Trump, the Big Ten decided to join them, announcing a return Wednesday and targeting the weekend of Oct. 23-24 for its first games.

Suddenly, the Pac-12 is on the sidelines with the lesser Mountain West and Mid-American. That’s not good company for a conference already lagging behind its Power 5 peers, financially and competitively in the two major sports: football and men’s basketball.

If the Pac-12 doesn’t follow suit, it risks falling further into irrelevance.

With many campuses seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases, including at Colorado, the Pac-12 has legitimate reason to stand by its decision of sitting out.

The other Power 5 conferences are dealing with many of the same issues, however, and they’ve all now determined it’s safe to play football.

There’s no question that money and the drive for a national title spurred the Big Ten to change its mind. Ohio State and Penn State are national title contenders, while Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Minnesota are Top 25 teams, as well.

The Big Ten, of course, cited medical developments and strict guidelines for its reason to return. By the end of the month, each of the 14 Big Ten schools will have daily antigen tests for its student-athletes. Those who test positive will sit out of competition for 21 days and go through cardiac testing. They must be cleared by a cardiologist before returning to the field.

That’s a hurdle the Pac-12 is ready to clear, too. On Sept. 3, the conference announced a partnership with Quidel Corporation, which will provide daily antigen tests that bring results within 15 minutes.

Scott called the Quidel deal a “game changer” for the Pac-12, and medical experts in the conference agreed it was a significant step toward a safe return to sports because it will avoid putting those who are positive on the field, helps mitigate spread and makes contact tracing easier.

Scott reiterated on Wednesday, however, that the Pac-12 has other challenges, including, he said, “our universities in California and Oregon do not have approval from state or local public health officials to start contact practice.”

Not long after that statement, Newsom, who spoke with Scott on Wednesday, held a virtual press conference and said, “(The Pac-12) can resume football. There’s nothing in the guidelines that says the Pac-12 cannot move forward.

“I want to make this crystal clear: nothing in the state guidelines deny the ability for the Pac-12 to resume. Quite the contrary. That’s been a misrepresentation of the facts.”

That’s true, to a point. The technicality, according to Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News, is that while the state of California will allow full-contact games between two teams – 22 players on the field at once – the teams can’t have full-contact 11-on-11 practices.

California state guidelines call for teams to have training groups of “six to 12 individuals, all members of the same team.” They can practice in small-group drills or go 5-on-5, but can play full, regular games. It’s odd, but at least it’s a start.

Meanwhile, through a spokesman, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said that Oregon and Oregon State have been granted an exemption to the state’s sports guidelines, but must submit a written plan with safety protocols. Approval of those plans is required for the Beavers and Ducks to move forward.

After the comments by Newsom and Brown, the Pac-12 issued the followed statement from Scott:

“The Pac-12 welcomes today’s statements by Governor Newsom of California and Governor Brown of Oregon that state public health officials will allow for contact practice and return to competition, 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. We appreciate Governor Newsom’s and Governor Brown’s support, the former of which is consistent with the very productive conversation that he and I had earlier today. Our California and Oregon universities will now each individually and immediately reach out to their relevant county public health officials to see clarification on what is required to achieve the same clearance to resume contact practice and competition. We are eager for our student-athletes to have the opportunity to play this season, as soon as it can be done safely and in accordance with public health authority approvals.”

Obviously, some hurdles need to be cleared, but it’s clear that officials in California and Oregon are willing to work with the Pac-12 to get the conference back on the field.

Former CU head coach Rick Neuheisel recently told Buffzone, “The Pac-12 needs to be really aggressive about making a statement about how much they love football, and how much they want to build their brand of football, as it pertains to the national scene.”

The need for that statement is even greater now.

The Pac-12’s Power 5 peers will all have a fall football season (or at least try to have one). Many Pac-12 players, including those at CU, have already spoken up about wanting to join them and it’s a safe bet those voices will get louder in the coming days.

The Pac-12 is establishing testing and safety protocols to protect its players, and it could be devastating to the long-term relevance of the conference if they don’t attempt to play this fall.

Pressure is squarely on Scott and the Pac-12 presidents and chancellors.

They can’t afford to stick with their current decision.

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