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Pac-12, Utah Utes inching closer to playing football this season

California, Oregon officials clear path for its teams to practice during coronavirus pandemic

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SALT LAKE CITY — A few weeks ago, Utah wide receiver Britain Covey shared a joke that was circulating among the players.

“Hell will be straight football practice with no game to look forward to,” Covey said.

At the time, the Pac-12 had yet to announce a partnership for rapid COVID-19 testing, leaving the conference on a path to continue postponing the season until at least January. 

My, how things are now evolving.

Statements released by Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott on Wednesday prove it. They preceded and followed comments by governors from California (Gavin Newsom) and Oregon (Kate Brown) that are expected to allow Oregon, Oregon State, Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC to practice when and if conference officials opt to start the football season sooner than projected.

“The Pac-12 welcomes today’s statements by Governor Newsom of California and Governor Brown of Oregon that state public health officials will allow for contact practice and return to competition, and that there are no state restrictions on our ability to play sports in light of our adherence to strict health and safety protocols and stringent testing requirements, including our recent, announced partnership with Quidel, which will enable daily rapid results testing,” Scott said. “We appreciate Governor Newsom’s and Governor Brown’s support, the former of which is consistent with the very productive conversation that he and I had earlier today.

“Our California and Oregon universities will now each individually and immediately, reach out to their relevant county public health officials to seek clarification on what is required to achieve the same clearance to resume contact practice and competition,” Scott continued. “We are eager for our student-athletes to have the opportunity to play this season, as soon as it can be done safely and in accordance with public health authority approvals.”

Utah officials did not have an immediate response to the news. Earlier in the day, the fluid nature of the Pac-12 football situation was evident.

“At this time, our universities in California and Oregon do not have approval from state or local public health officials to start contact practice,” Scott said at the time. “We are hopeful that our new daily testing capability can help satisfy public health official approvals in California and Oregon to begin contact practice and competition. We are equally closely monitoring the devastating fires and air quality in our region at this time.”

Scott closed his initial remarks by expressing eagerness for fall sports student-athletes to compete this season. He emphasized that it would happen “as soon as it can be done safely and in accordance with public health authority approvals.”

Oregon health officials granted permission for the two programs in that state to practice pending written proposals from the schools and the Pac-12. Details about the Pac-12’s soon-to-be implemented rapid COVID-19 testing program is also part of the equation, thus the process of getting the team back on the field is not complete. The Pac-12 hopes to have the testing procedures in place by the end of the month.

“We want Oregon’s and Oregon State’s players to be able to focus on football while protecting their health and safety,” Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor, told oregonlive.com. “We also want to ensure that team practices will not be derailed by a COVID-19 outbreak that would threaten the health not only of the players and coaches, but of their university communities and the wider communities in Eugene and Corvallis.”

As the situation sorts itself out, things got a little strange in California. The big question is explaining why Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC haven’t been able to practice because of community health standards that prohibit contact and the gathering of large groups.

Newsom responded to an inquiry by The Bay Area News Group about it.

“There is nothing in the state guidelines that denies the Pac-12 from having conference games,” he said. “There is nothing that denies the games from occurring.”

Newsom confirmed that he has met with Scott and that the state is willing to engage the Pac-12 on the matter. Newsom said they’re committed to working with the conference and its student-athletes.

 “I want to make this crystal clear,” Newsom noted. “Nothing in the state guidelines denies the ability for the Pac-12 to resume. That’s been a misrepresentation of the facts.”

Sports writer Jon Wilner, who initially reported that news, posted a section of California state rules on guidelines involving physical distancing. 

It reads: “Train in Cohorts. IHEs (institutions of higher education) should establish cohorts as a strategy to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19. A cohort may be composed of six to 12 individuals, all members of the same team, who consistently work out and participate in activities together. Cohorts should avoid mixing with other groups.”

Wilner later received an explanation from the state. An official said that games aren’t the problem. It’s practice with 11-on-11 that is not permitted.

Instant coronavirus test technology is expected to be in place throughout the conference by the end of the month. The Big Ten Conference announced it would start playing football again in late October. The latter left the Pac-12 as the only Power Five league in the country without a plan to participate this fall. The conference announced a postponement last month.

When word of the Big Ten’s decision to play football this fall began to surface earlier this week, a group of players from USC penned a letter asking for help from Newsom. Quarterback Kedon Slovis sent an accompanying message to the governor via Twitter.

“We have sat by for two weeks watching teams across the country play the game we love safely. Most schools have a fraction of the resources that our school and conference have provided to play safely. You are the only thing holding us back. Please #LetUsPlay,” Slovis wrote.

Utah quarterback Jake Bentley expressed his support and penned a tweet to all governors in the Pac-12 footprint.

“This expresses how all of feel as Pac-12 athletes. We want to play and we know it starts from the top. Please come together to implement new standards that allow everyone to play the game that we love,” Bentley said.

No immediate timetable was announced by the Pac-12 as to when football practices might formally get started, or if and when games would begin to be played this fall.

In other words, stay tuned.