November 24, 2020

College football: Shut it down during COVID-19 surge

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America is barreling toward a winter lockdown because of skyrocketing COVID-19 cases that threaten to run amok.

And yet, college football continues.

About 90% of Californians live in counties that are in the purple, or “widespread risk,” tier in the state’s four-color reopening plan.

And yet, Pac-12 and Mountain West sports leaders continue to play games in California.

At a time Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued a nighttime curfew ahead of Thanksgiving, college football engages in reckless behavior by gathering in large groups to partake in non-essential business.

For many diehard fans, this stance is not just unpopular. It’s sacrilege to speak it out loud among those whose lives are tethered to a cultural emblem that screams “Made in America”.

Speak it we must. The evidence mounts weekly that while campus leaders gave it the old college try, their misguided efforts have failed.

Two of the Bay Area’s three Division I football teams had games canceled Saturday in what is becoming an all-too-familiar scenario.

The Stanford-Washington State game was declared a no-contest when the Cougars did not have enough scholarship athletes available because of coronavirus issues.

San Jose State’s game at Fresno State also was declared no contest because of COVID-19 issues among the Bulldogs.

The school that did play — Cal — announced an hour before kickoff that three offensive linemen would not play because of virus issues. Officials held out four others for unspecified problems.

Just another Saturday on the football field.

San Jose State’s cancellation was the fifth Mountain West game this season and third over the weekend canceled because of COVID-19.

“While there is disappointment about not playing a game this weekend, this is another reminder how important it is to follow all the health and safety guidelines to beat COVID-19 – starting with wearing a face mask, washing your hands frequently, and practicing safe social distancing,” Spartans coach Brent Brennan said.

San Jose State (4-0) is enjoying its best start in 65 years with an electrifying offense and stubborn defense. But who knows how many asterisks will be added to the record by the time the season ends next month.

Stanford (0-2) has yet to find its footing because a testing error kept starting quarterback Davis Mills out of the opener and forced him to lose a week of practice before the second game last weekend.

Cal, also winless heading into the Big Game on Friday at Memorial Stadium, had to cancel its season opener because of one positive COVID-19 test that resulted in losing the defensive line through contact tracing protocol.

Then a COVID-19 outbreak at Arizona State that infected Sun Devils coach Herm Edwards forced a second cancellation for Cal. But the Pac-12 quickly reacted to schedule the Bears against UCLA on a rare Sunday game last week.

Officials canceled or postponed at least 17 games across the country this week. The University of Miami announced Friday that coach Manny Diaz had tested positive for coronavirus two days after Maryland said its coach Michael Locksley had a positive COVID-19 test.

Here is a sample of other college coaches who have tested positive for the virus: Alabama’s Nick Saban, Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin, Florida’s Dan Mullen, Florida State’s Mike Norvell and Kansas’ Les Miles.

Pac-12 and Big Ten leaders looked smart when balking at playing this fall. Eventually, they ignored a New York Times editorial titled “College Football is Not Essential”. Instead, they let their pocketbooks do the talking — and walking.

They joined the circus.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told the Times editorial board in August that his group had a responsibility to protect its players.

“Given what we still don’t know about the spread of the virus, we simply couldn’t play football and look parents in the eye and say, ‘We’ve got your kids’ best interests in mind,’” he said.

The outlook seemingly changed when pressure mounted to fulfill broadcast obligations worth millions of dollars to the sports programs. School administrators said they could not survive without the lucrative windfall from television rights as spectators are not allowed at games.

The people affected the most are the young athletes. Few of them are attending in-person classes as most schools have limited students on campus to help slow the spread of the virus.

The football players look more like employees than ever. But they mostly want to play despite the potential risks. It is understandable young men would follow their deep passion because the chance to participate in college athletics leaves a powerful imprint on their lives.

But the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences had it right when not jumping headfirst over the ledge with the other football leagues to play earlier in the fall.

Then these school presidents got it wrong by believing a testing program would shield their students from contracting a deadly virus.

Now basketball is about to begin in the coming week. Basketball is played indoors where coronavirus thrives, according to studies.

The Harvards, Princetons and Yales said “No thank you” to football months ago. The Ivy League also canceled winter sports and postponed the spring lineup.

The Pac-12 and Mountain West should do the same.

Put the student back in “student-athlete.”

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Author: Elliott Almond

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