Maybe college football doesn’t start on time, maybe the start of the 2020 season is pushed all the way back to the winter, but the widely held assumption at this point is that the sport will be played at some point and in some fashion during the 2020-21 academic year.
Whenever medical professionals and university administrators deem it safe to play football, what happens if some schools are ready to play and some schools are not?
That unanswerable question, one of many in regard to college athletics, has begun to pick up steam in recent weeks as firm decisions about the fate of college football loom, likely around the middle of June.
Take the Pac-12, for example. One of five Power Five conferences across the country, the Pac-12’s members are spread across six states. Those six states are at varying degrees of stay-at-home orders and social-distancing guidelines. Those orders and guidelines are likely to shift between now, mid-June and into the fall, but in theory, with different states at different degrees of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be hard to get everyone on the same page to play football.
“We are a proud member of the Pac-12 Conference and we will do as the conference feels best and will be open, at this point, to anything that makes sense,” University of Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said last week on 700 AM. “If the Pac-12, for example, believes collectively that starting unequally makes sense for the good of the conference, then that’s what we’ll look at.
“If it’s the other way, we’ll abide by that, too, but I think right now, in April, what you have to be is open for all possible scenarios and not shutting anything down. I think if you shut down anything at this point, it’s just a mistake in the way you have to plan and prepare.”
The state of Utah is one of seven states nationwide without a stay-at-home order from the governor, although Gov. Gary Herbert issued a “stay home, stay safe” directive on March 27. That directive was extended once, through Friday, at which time the state came under “moderate risk” protocols for COVID-19, allowing in-restaurant dining, the reopening of businesses such as gyms and salons, and gatherings of up to 20 people.
Despite that, there has been no announcement made as to whether or not the University of Utah will hold in-person classes during the fall semester. That decision will help dictate if and when the Utes play football. Summer-session classes, which end on July 31, will be held virtually.
On April 13, California, Oregon and Washington announced the Western States Pact, a collective plan for reopening economies, protecting the general public and dealing with future problems associated with COVID-19. On April 27, Colorado and Nevada joined the Western States Pact.
Between the five Western States Pact members, there are nine Pac-12 schools. Those nine include the league’s two highest-profile football programs currently, USC and Oregon. Of the nine, four reside in California, whose governor, Gavin Newsom, has been among the most outspoken state leaders during the pandemic as it relates to sports. Newsom is on the record as saying he doesn’t anticipate sporting events in the state of California, specifically the NFL, to start on time. Furthermore, Santa Clara County executive officer Jeffrey Smith said earlier this month, he doesn’t expect sporting events to take place in California “until at least Thanksgiving.”
Newsom’s stay-at-home order went into effect on March 19, with an undetermined end date.
“Right now, the Power Five conferences, and pretty much the others, have adopted the same thing,” Harlan said. “Until May 31, none of your athletic facilities are open for students to work out, and that makes sense. Maybe a Utah or a Colorado, in their orange-type formats, they’re going to see some limited openings of workout facilities. As we plan ahead, we’re looking ahead at how we can open some of our athletic facilities on a very, very limited basis following the governor and his task force.
“That’s going to be the biggest challenge. Everybody operates from the same thought process, we all want that. Who wouldn’t want that, but we also have to be realistic that we’re in different regions."
One face-to-face event whose future is in doubt is Pac-12 Football Media Day, scheduled for July 29 at Hollywood & Highland Entertainment Center. That facility is temporarily closed, but a Pac-12 spokesman told The Salt Lake Tribune on April 21 that no decision on changes to the event has been made.
That is likely to change in the next few weeks. No Power Five conference has canceled or altered its football media days yet, but the Mountain West and Mid-American Conferences announced last week they would move their media days from an in-person to a virtual format.