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Last gasp for Pac-12, USC football this fall?

The Pac-12 CEO Group, comprised of the presidents and chancellors of each conference university, as scheduled to meet today and is expected to deliver a vote on how to proceed with fall sports, including football.

As of Sunday evening, reports from around the country stated confidently that the Big Ten, followed by the Pac-12, would announce today that they were either canceling or postponing the fall seasons. But that was before a major push by players and coaches around the country, beginning Sunday night and lasting throughout Monday, pleading to play the fall season through as presently scheduled.

Whether or not that affects today’s potential vote remains to be seen, though reports indicate that it hasn’t fallen on deaf ears.

Still, the universities face an uphill battle when it comes to playing the season this fall.

On Monday, Pac-12 CEO Larry Scott received a document from the Pac-12’s Student-Athlete Health and Well-Being Board, outlining recommendations on how best to proceed at this time.

Utah team doctor David Petron is a member of that board and shared some of his thoughts with ESPN 700 in Salt Lake City. While Petron said ultimately that the current recommendation is to “stop contact and competitive activities at this time,” he provided some amount hope that there could still be a season.

Petron said the document “will outline criteria that is needed to move forward with competition.”

Again, this is going to be something where different regions, states and cities are at different points in trying to stop the spread of the coronavirus and a national or regional plan has not–or potentially can not–be developed.

“Two main things that we look at are Covid daily new cases per 100,000 in the community, and the percent of positive tests in the community,” Petron said, adding that Utah, currently around 9-10%, would be over the acceptable limit.

“Anything over 7.5% positive tests is in the red, and the recommendation if it was that high would be to do frequent testing–as frequently as daily,” Petron said.

Less than 5% and fewer than 30 cases per 100,000 people in the community, then the testing could move to every three days or potentially only weekly.

The ability to do frequent testing potentially hinges on the feasibility of the point-of-care antigen tests, which Petron said only cost “a few dollars” and results are nearly instant. The sensitivity of the test is about 80%, but Petron said taking three tests would raise that to 99%, and the speed would allow for players to be tested on the day of the game and receive their results before kickoff. Petron said they believe they are on the cusp of being able to “mobilize these point-of-care tests and by doing that, make return to play safer.”

The challenge for USC to play this season could be one of the toughest in the conference, as making sure the virus is “controlled within the school and the community at large” was the first thing Petron mentioned when talking about a return to play. USC has done very well in returning players safety to campus for voluntary workouts, with just eight positive cases in 666 total tests and zero positive tests this past week. But controlling the spread of the virus in the surrounding area or even the city of Los Angeles doesn’t seem to be within the scope of what the USC athletic department and university as a whole can accomplish.

But even if USC could get over that hurdle, there are others as well.

“You’ll need access to complete cardiac evaluation,” Petron said. “Cardiac issues are really coming to the forefront…We know that death in general with this virus is very, very unlikely in a college-aged athlete, but we also don’t know the morbidity. So it’s a novel virus and we know it has a predilection to cause at least subclinical myocardial involvement, and so each school at least needs to be able to test something called troponin, which is a breakdown product of the heart, be able to do an EKG, an echo and a cardiac MRI if needed. These are sophisticated universities and pretty much all the schools would be able to do that, so we should be able to satisfy that. And then we need to have testing access and capacity to test based…on the prevalence of the virus in the community. If the virus is above 7.5% like it is in our state, the recommendation really would be to test daily, and right now we don’t have the ability to do that. But shortly, with this point-of-care testing, we hopefully will be able to do that.

“If we could test on a regular basis, if we can make sure that in our community the numbers are going down, especially if our positive percentage rate is getting below 7% in each community, then I think we can play college football. But right now, with the way things are, we’re really not ready for that.”

With that recommendation strictly from the medical point of view, there seems to be little hope that the Pac-12 CEO group will announce today that the season will proceed as scheduled. But with the idea that the potential exists to get testing to a point where full practices and competition would be acceptable, it stands to reason that the conference might simply delay the start of the season again. The Pac-12 has announced that it will allow programs to begin fall camp on August 17, with an eye toward the opening games on Sept. 26. But the conference also built the schedule with the ability to push the first two games back into the bye week and the open date on Dec. 12. That means the Pac-12 doesn’t need to start its season until Oct. 10–and could go even later if it dropped to nine or even eight games.

Whether the presidents or health board feel that is enough time to get the numbers around community rates and testing ability to a satisfactory level could be one of the factors in the discussion of what to announce next.

Of course, while the health and safety of the players, coaches, officials, support staff and all other essential personnel associated with a college football season is at the top of the list when it comes to the public dialogue about whether or not the season should take place, there are several other issues the schools will need to take into account.

With the universities no longer able to ask their student-athletes to sign liability waivers, the unknown longterm effects of the virus and the concern over potential cardiac issues is something that will likely weigh on the discussions. So too will the growing refrain among student-athletes looking for safety, social and economic reforms, begun by the Pac-12’s #WeAreUnited statement and continued with Sunday’s #WeWantToPlay message. While much of Sunday’s statement sent out by some of college football’s best players centered around Covid-19 contingencies and an overwhelming desire to play this season, there is a reference to “ultimately creat[ing] a college football players association”–an ask that might not be taken lightly by college football’s decision makers.

Ultimately, things could still go in several different directions following the meeting today, as the season could be left as is, canceled completely or pushed back, either to the spring or just a few weeks, but remain in the fall. It would seem odd for the conference to announce a 10-game schedule only to completely negate it less than two weeks later. But whatever the case, it’s clear that USC players and coaches want to be out on the field, as evidence by tight ends coach John David Baker’s tweet on Monday.

Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.

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