The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Pac-12’s football season hasn’t even started and two games already have been canceled

The Pac-12 is off to a sluggish start. (Ralph Freso/AP)
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Last month, the Pac-12 laid out what was described by one observer as an “extreme” coronavirus testing policy, one that hopefully would allow the conference’s football teams to play this season without too many interruptions.

“It’s very aggressive,’’ Commissioner Larry Scott said at the time. “But it gives us the best chance possible to get through the season with a minimum number of lost games.”

The Pac-12 season didn’t even get off the ground before its first cancellations. On Thursday, the conference announced that Saturday night’s season opener between California and Washington would be canceled, at the Golden Bears’ request, because one of their players tested positive for the coronavirus and a number of other players had to be quarantined as a result.

Then, on Friday, the league announced that Saturday’s game between Arizona and host Utah had been canceled, as well, because the Utes were having the same issue as the Golden Bears and asked the conference to call off the game.

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“This decision was made under the Pac-12′s football game cancellation policy due to Cal not having the minimum number of scholarship players available for the game as a result of a positive football student-athlete covid-19 case and resulting isolation of additional football student-athletes under contact tracing protocols,” the Pac-12 said in a statement Thursday announcing the Cal-Washington cancellation, language that was used again in Friday’s announcement.

Under the conference’s coronavirus plan, each team was scheduled to play the five others in its division plus one cross-division team. Then, in the seventh and final week of the Pac-12 regular season, the two division winners were to square off for the conference title while the remaining teams would play their corresponding cross-division opponent (second place vs. second place, and so on).

However, the conference said Friday that Week 7 now could be used to reschedule canceled games, with a decision on that coming later in the season.

The Pac-12 is the last of the Power Five conferences to return to the field, with the majority of its teams playing their season openers on Saturday. Under the policy that allowed it to do so, players are tested each day they take the field for practices or games, either via antigen tests or the more accurate PCR tests, which take longer to process. Players must undergo at least one PCR test per week. This policy, designed to contain outbreaks, is more stringent than any of college football’s other four major conferences, which either require three tests per week or, in the case of the Big Ten, daily antigen tests.

On Wednesday, Cal Coach Justin Wilcox announced that a player had tested positive and a “significant” number of players needed contact tracing, putting Saturday’s game into doubt.

“If it is feasible for us to play we are going to play the game,” Wilcox told reporters Wednesday. “Are there hurdles? There are hurdles, yes. With the players in question the game is in jeopardy. If we have the bodies available to play the game we will play the game. Several people are being held out and that’s a legitimate threat to the game.”

According to the Associated Press, Cal’s practice on Wednesday was limited and some team drills were not doable based on the number of players held out. Wilcox wouldn’t specify how many players were sidelined. The player who tested positive is not experiencing symptoms of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“It’s a tricky situation as we all know. We are glad to report that the one positive is asymptomatic and everybody’s healthy. But the result of the contact tracing is significant,” Wilcox said. “We will hopefully learn in the short term where that leads us, but it’s a significant hurdle.”

In a statement Friday, Utah said “a number of positive covid-19 cases among student-athletes within the football program” had popped up in the previous 24 hours.