SALT LAKE CITY — Friday morning was expected to be a day of bragging.
It’s always a one-sided deal; and this Friday — today — was going to be no different. It was expected to be filled with Utah proudly celebrating its 10th straight victory over BYU from the night before or the Cougars finally able to remove a decade-long losing streak from its memory with a win over the Utes — in hostile territory nonetheless.
Instead, an unusual quiet ahead of a long weekend.
No trash talking, no replaying the highlights (or lowlights) to coworkers — nothing. The only raucous noise heard the day before came from construction crews as they renovated the south end zone portion of Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Not exactly the same thing.
The season, as it stands, is unplayable — at least for Utah and the conference it belongs to. The Pac-12 chose last month to postpone the 2020 season amid health officials calling for a pause to sports until the health and safety of athletes could be guaranteed amid a coronavirus pandemic that has shuttered much of the economy and what many considered to be “normal” life.
Football was still played in the country Thursday night — the Football Bowl Subdivision kicked off the season with a pair of games, and locally Bingham High claimed its first win of the season against a now 0-3 Timpview — but Utah remains on the sidelines hoping for a Hail Mary situation.
There was a little glimmer of hope Thursday afternoon, though, as Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott detailed positive news that could potentially bring football (and many other sports) back sooner than expected. Figuratively, the coach has at least recognized that a Hail Mary is in the playbook, but whether he calls it remains to be seen.
The conference announced a partnership with San Diego-based Quidel Corp., a diagnostic test manufacturer, to provide each of its 12 athletic departments with the equipment and technology needed to test athletes daily with a rapid antigen test for COVID-19 — a key factor to a potential resumption of play in the conference, and one Scott called a “game-changer.”
“This agreement is a major step toward the safe return of sports competition in the Pac-12,” Scott told media in a video conference Thursday.
The tests, Scott claims, are “highly accurate” and can be performed in the various training rooms across the conference. Each test takes 15 minutes to return results and can be administered daily.
Given yesterday’s announcement about daily testing being made available to the Pac-12, did the conference postpone the season too quickly?— Josh Furlong (@JFurKSL) September 4, 2020
Dr. Kim Harmon, the section head of sports medicine for the University of Washington and research development director of the Pac-12 Student-Athlete Health and Well-being Initiative, said some models show that frequent testing, or rapid turnaround testing, can “catch all the infections before they become actually infectious.”
“That's one of the real advantages to that rapid turnaround is that you know the results right then and that person who's potentially infected doesn't sort of go around and spread it for 24 hours while you're waiting for the results to come back,” she added. “These rapid test should be able to detect infection before people become infectious, and then we can pull the athletes.
“So, theoretically, when people are out there on the field, they're not going to infect each other. And then that has big implications in terms of who you need to quarantine. Because, theoretically, there is an argument to be made that you would not have to quarantine others on the same field or court when somebody does become positive because you knew they weren't infectious when they were playing.”
In short, athletic departments, in theory, could sniff out COVID-19 before an outbreak happens on campus and could quarantine positive individuals in a quick manner without infecting more members of the team. With that hurdle being lifted, a return to play becomes all the more likely.
Utah Athletic Director Mark Harlan said in a statement that the partnership “is an exciting new development,” though he added, “there is still much work to be done.” That includes getting the necessary approval from individual state governments to approve play — namely in California and Oregon where teams aren’t yet allowed to practice due to ongoing rules related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our top priority all along has been the health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff, and we will continue to keep that priority at the forefront of everything we do.” Harlan said. “Our approach will continue to be subject to the approval of public health authorities, and we will remain in close communication with campus and Pac-12 Conference leadership as we go forward.”
Did the Pac-12 cancel too soon?
The Big Ten and Pac-12 canceled their fall season on Aug. 11, more than a month before its expected delayed start of conference-only play at the end of September. Health officials recommended a stoppage of play and, at least in the Pac-12, the decision was made by a unanimous vote.
But was the vote premature given that the other three Power Five conferences — the ACC, Big 12 and SEC — continued with plans to play a delayed start to the season? The ACC is even set to begin play on Sept. 12 — just one week from now.
Given that the Pac-12 couldn't guarantee daily testing — Scott said he expected this to be possible closer to the end of November — and several programs wouldn't have been allowed to open up practices, Scott said he stands by the decision made in August to cancel and not postpone, particularly since there was no promise things would get any better before the end of the year.
"Our current position is we're not starting competition before Jan. 1, but I'm pleased," Scott said. "This is a major new development, and we will wait to see what the NCAA decides in terms of hopefully, a later start date that allows us to participate. We will constantly revisit, and we'll constantly track the data and the science — this is a dynamic situation, I think for all of us, we're careful not to predict too far out.
"So as circumstances change, I think we're going to stay nimble and regularly convene with our athletic directors, with our university presidents and chancellors, and evaluate. So I'm hopeful today's news and what's coming from the NCAA will provide us a pathway to start before January 1."
What are the next steps?
The daily testing is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome before play is expected to resume in the Pac-12, though Scott said there are "other considerations" needed to be met before it's really a true possibility. That starts with the various health authorities approving play in their respective states and university administrators feeling comfortable with the progress made.
"We've got scenario planning groups made up of our coaches, athletics directors, other football administrators, our new lead — Merton Hanks is going to be leading that effort with Mark Harlan, Utah athletic director who's on the Football Oversight Committee — they'll be relooking all of these scenarios," Scott said. "But, again, some of this is still outside our control in terms of public health authorities being comfortable with the kind of contact required for football practice and training camp.
"We've been really clear and open and transparent that we need a full six weeks in the sport of football to feel safe and to mitigate the possibility of injuries. And so we're only going to go about this in a way that we feel comfortable, and that the health and safety of the student-athletes is well looked after and not cut it to fine. So, again, what we can't predict is when we're going to get the approvals we need from government authorities."
Harmon said the conference is currently conducting research on other potential side-effects of COVID-19, namely myocarditis, a heart inflammation in some patients, and expects to have results back in the next month or two. That research will help health officials understand the potential dangers and long-term effects of athletes that test positive with the virus. But the development of daily testing eliminates the conference's "primary concern."
"That was one of our primary concerns is that we, as a conference, didn't want to have widespread transmission of the disease because of the sport activity itself," Harmon said. "Our athletes will be no more at risk than the students that are on campus, and maybe at less risk because of the frequent testing. I think that this is a safe way that we can go back to sport and I'm very excited to move forward and very grateful that we have this opportunity."
U. athletics department faced with furloughs amid pandemic
The University of Utah’s athletics department is facing department-wide furloughs and some layoffs amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, Harlan said Friday in an interview with ESPN 700.
In an effort to mitigate budget concerns as the future of fall sports remains uncertain, the department has, to some degree, furloughed every employee in the department.
The furlough includes Harlan himself, he noted.
The department has also laid off some employees and cut all performance bonuses indefinitely.