Pac-12, What Are You Playing For?

For the majority of the country, this past weekend was a win. Arguably the most impactful in recent memory. After such a tumultuous year it was understandable, and uplifting, to see the widespread celebration in so many communities across the nation. However, while we rejoiced in the closing of a challenging chapter, another began on the gridiron out west. On a Saturday that produced nearly 130,000 new coronavirus cases and over 1,000 deaths nationwide, the Pac-12 was back.

The final Power Five conference joined the ACC, SEC, Big 12, and Big Ten in competition and, like the first four, was immediately hit with a false start. Two of the six games scheduled to take place — Cal vs. Washington & Utah vs. Arizona — were canceled and declared a “no contest” because of players testing positive for COVID-19. While Cal’s game was called due to a single positive test, Utah is facing a more threatening impact after one of their players was hospitalized.

We already know fans are not allowed at games. At some colleges, students are not allowed on campus. Heck, traveling teams are limited to essential personnel. So, after one week of competing in front of empty stadiums, what is the Pac-12 playing for?

Last Saturday, during FOX Sports Big Noon Kickoff, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott highlighted the importance of showcasing the conference “in front of a very big national audience.” I do not doubt this. TV exposure is vital for recruiting efforts, increasing institutions’ popularity, and creating revenue. Last season, the conference’s TV deals with ESPN, FOX, and the Pac-12 Network grossed more than $310 million. In the wake of a pandemic and the Pac-12 averaging a $3.4 million deficit in athletic departments, any profit becomes significant. With the planned seven-game football season, the conference is now on track to mitigate this loss. During the same interview, Scott also ensured the public that “health and safety have always been our first priority” and that the weekend’s cancellations were evidence of that. Yet, other programs dealt with similar issues and were permitted to take the field. Stanford was missing three players due to protocols, including starting quarterback David Mills, and still competed against Oregon. Even more concerning was Washington State, whose head coach Nick Rolovich told the media that 32 players were unavailable for Saturdays win over Oregon State — Rolovich would not mention how many were COVID-related.

Outside the Pac-12, coronavirus-related matters are not much better. The Big Ten is only three weeks in and has not had a coronavirus-free slate of games, despite imposing strict return-to-play protocols that recent cardiologist studies argue could be considered excessive. In the ACC, the big news was Heisman hopeful and likely number one overall pick, Trevor Lawrence, contracting the virus. The Big 12 has had a little more success with the majority of teams completing all seven games so far, but the conference’s primary requirement of needing only 53 able bodies to field a roster does not inspire much confidence. In the SEC, positive tests (both on college campuses and football rosters) have not waned. The result for this upcoming weekend is the cancellation of a highly anticipated matchup between top-ranked Alabama and defending national champion LSU.

The health risks were on full display for over a month before the Pac-12 began its schedule. As a result, the conference has imposed strict testing protocols and implemented admirable return-to-play policies. Yet, so far, the results have not been much different than the rest of their peers. Perhaps that is more of a reflection of the country than the conference. Either way, it’s becoming increasingly unreasonable to expect the trend to change.

Again, what are they doing it for?

Getting more eyes on the conference isn’t an immoral objective, but they would need a viable national contender to make any real progress. Unfortunately, current and recent events tell us that is more of a pipedream than an achievable reality. Reggie Bush, an analyst at Fox Sports and former USC superstar, said before the season that “it will be tough for the Pac-12 teams to be a factor” when it comes to qualifying for the College Football Playoff. The Pac-12 has not been a factor in football since Oregon took an 18-point drubbing from Ohio State in the 2014 national championship. Since then, the “Conference of Champions” has mustered a 17–22 record in bowl games. Also, with only a seven-game schedule, there is no room for error. If, for example, Oregon — tabbed as the only real hope for the Pac-12 to get a team into the CFP — cannot complete the season without any cancellations, its hopes of getting a top-four seed are gone. This is already an issue for other programs, primarily in the Big Ten, which also started late (Oct. 27). It is not to say the Pac-12 does not have talent. The conference produced 32 selections in the 2020 NFL Draft, third among the Power Five. Unfortunately, this season’s athletes have been dealt a bad hand as it is unclear how much playing can improve their stock.

Well, what about that talent. They want to play — most of them. Notably, USC wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown led a player effort to draft a public letter to California Governor Gavin Newsome, asking him to ease health policies to allow college football to be played in the state. Arizona State players did the same. The #WeAreUnited movement was determined to create impactful change for this season, but always with the intent of competing. On the other side, WSU wide receiver Kassidy Woods chose to sit out the season for health reasons. Oregon defensive back Jevon Holland — a projected first-round pick — chose to opt out and use this time to prepare for next year’s NFL Draft. It is encouraging to see players given an option to play (without direct consequences), but that seems to be where the support from the conference stops. Munir McClain, a teammate of St. Brown at USC, was suspended in mid-September for receiving financial benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. The investigation is still pending. Meanwhile, McClain is currently suspended from the team. It is not inspiring news considering other athletes who opted out might make similar decisions to support themselves.

The Pac-12 is trying to tell us that they are “all-in” on this season, but its actions do not align with that message. Back in August, the Pac 12’s CEO group voted unanimously to postpone all athletic events until after Jan. 1, 2021. The reason reportedly revolved around a need for effective, daily testing. A month later — and a week after the Big Ten announced its return — the testing had supposedly improved to the point where the season could proceed with programs safely returning to football activities. I do not dispute the ever-evolving science and that schools are meeting their respective county health and safety protocol standards. However, I am apprehensive when four teams are shelved on opening weekend due to the same concerns cited in support of canceling the season.

Not all of this falls at the feet of the administration. Players want to play. Coaches want to coach. Fans crave entertainment — myself included. It would bring me immense satisfaction to watch Cal take down Stanford in The Big Game and hoist The Axe for a second consecutive season. During a period of uncertainty, any opportunity for a return to normalcy is logical. But we need to be transparent about why the Pac is back. If it is purely a business decision about recouping lost dollars, explain how to that money will be reinvested. If it is about not wanting to be the only Power Five left out, clarify how not playing hurts the conference.

Right now, I don’t hear anything consistent with what I am seeing.

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