SALT LAKE CITY — Utah was set to start up its fall camp Monday and open up its 2020 football season on the road against the Washington State Cougars in just over a month.
The only problem was the entire landscape of college football changed on a minute-by-minute basis this week.
On Tuesday, the Pac-12 announced it has postponed all sports competitions, including its highly-profitable football schedule, due to COVID-19 concerns and will look to a potential spring start. The conference said no sport will be allowed to compete until at least Jan. 1, 2021, though student support, training and athletic activities must still abide by the NCAA mandated 20-hour week rule for the remainder of the year.
The decision was made by a unanimous vote by the conference's CEO group. The group met Tuesday afternoon after receiving reports from medical experts that raised concerns about the possibility of playing contact sports this fall.
"This was an extremely difficult and painful decision that we know will have important impacts on our student-athletes, coaches, administrators and our fans, and I know nothing that we can say will ease some of that disappointment, especially for some of our seniors," Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott told media in a Zoom call. "This decision was made after consultation with athletic directors, our coaches, football working groups, and with the Pac-12 COVID-19 Medical Advisory Committee, who expressed concerns with moving forward with contact practice.
"After revealing all the data, and considering the alternatives and having already delayed the start of our season and compressed, our seasoned CEO group was unanimous that this result, this decision was necessary."
In a letter to Utah fans, Utah Athletic Director Mark Harlan said: "Our attention will continue to focus on providing for the academic, emotional and physical well-being of our student-athletes. They will continue to prepare for their upcoming academic semester, and they will continue to have the same access to our first-class medical care, mental health care, academic support, nutrition and meals and scholarship support. We are also working closely with the Pac-12 and the NCAA to address questions regarding eligibility."
Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham said the team has known for some time that a fall season could likely get canceled, but said "it is still disappointing news for our program, our fans and especially for our student-athletes.
"We respect the guidance of the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Committee and the decision made today by the Pac-12 CEO group, and we will continue to put our focus on our player's academics and their development," Whittingham added. "Our number one priority is always the well-being of our players, and their health and safety comes first."
The conference followed the Big Ten, its fellow Power Five member, in postponing the season. A whirlwind of reports indicated the Big Ten would cancel its season on Monday. But a chorus of athletes and coaches, including Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Big Ten coaches Ryan Day (Ohio State) and Jim Harbaugh (Michigan), took to Twitter saying #WeWantToPlay.
Many around the country joined their voices in a last-ditch petition to salvage a season and to tell university presidents and athletic directors that the season needed to happen.
The effort seemed to work, at least in part, for a day.
🤦🏾♂️MOOD pic.twitter.com/RGUuneqlmL— Devin Brumfield🦏 (@brumfield_devin) August 11, 2020
National reports late Monday indicated the rhetoric around a canceled season had shifted to a likely delayed season, but following a meeting Tuesday morning with its presidents and athletic directors, the Big Ten made the postponement of the fall season official.
"The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward," Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. "As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall."
The reason for considering a canceled season, at least in part, came down to the health and safety of the athletes amid a still relatively unknown virus.
COVID-19 may have lasting health problems — many of which may not be known for some time. One recent report said some individuals, most notably five athletes from the Big Ten, that have contracted COVID-19 now suffer from a heart-related condition called myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle.
Dr. David Petron, a team doctor for the University of Utah and one of several medical experts that advise the Pac-12 on COVID-19, told ESPN 700 Monday that the recommendation to the conference is to “stop contact and competitive activities at this time.”
The medical experts submitted its findings to conference Scott and the CEO group, and the information was “eye opening,” according to a report from Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel.
Petron said the conference needed to meet several recommendations before the medical experts would give clearance to playing contact sports, including an increase in testing capacity and the ability to get test results back in less than 24 hours, which can’t be consistently done at this time, he said.
He said the conference is tracking two key metrics: COVID-19 daily new cases per 100,000 people in the community and the positive percent of tests in the community. A state with a positive test rate over 7.5% would need to test its athletes daily, he said. A positive rate between 5% and 7.5% would require a test every other day, and anything below 5% and 30 cases per 100,000 in the community would require testing every three days or maybe even weekly.
But the conference footprint isn’t to that point where weekly testing could be allowed. The following is the latest seven-day average positive percent for each state in the Pac-12, according to Johns Hopkins:
- Arizona: 12.6%
- California: 5.8%
- Colorado: 6.6%
- Oregon: 6.3%
- Utah: 8.3%
- Washington: 6.2%
“Bottom line is, if we can test on a regular basis, if we can make sure in the community the numbers are going down, especially if our positive percentage rate gets below 7% in each community, then I think we can play college football,” Petron said. “But right now, the way things are, we’re not ready for that.”
Petron said the conference needed to get point-of-care testing, or testing that can return results almost instantly like a pregnancy test, to adequately test athletes on a daily basis. A recent audit in Utah found that it takes, on average, 1.6 days for test results to be reported to an individual, though some testing sites take longer.
With point-of-care testing, though, the sensitivity is 80%, Petron said, which leads to potential false negatives; however, he said three tests would get the sensitivity up to about 99% accuracy and would give an accurate look at whether an athlete has COVID-19.
He added that experts recommended to the conference that the virus needs to be “controlled at the school and the community at large,” the schools need access to a complete cardiac evaluation, testing access and capacity need to be available depending on the prevalence in the community, schools need to be able to isolate athletes with positive cases, and they must have adequate health care facilities, including enough space in community ICUs.
Utah quarterback Jake Bentley tweeted Monday night that he believes Harlan and other university staff have created a safe environment for athletes. Petron said last weekend the entire football staff was tested for the virus and none had come down with a positive test out of the 180 tests conducted. He added that only three positives have been known in all the tests conducted since athletes officially returned to campus.
But the ultimate decision came down to the Pac-12’s top leadership Tuesday afternoon.