After starting the day under the impression that six of its football teams could not begin contact practices or hold competition, the Pac-12 was informed Wednesday by officials in California and Oregon that no such restrictions are in place at the state level, an important step for a potential return to play.
"The Pac-12 welcomes today's statements by Governor [Gavin] Newsom of California and Governor [Kate] Brown of Oregon that state public health officials will allow for contact practice and return to competition," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement, "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 recently announced partnership with Quidel which will enable daily rapid results testing."
The next step for the conference, Scott said, is for its member schools in California and Oregon to seek clarification from local public health officials, at the city or county level, about what needs to be done to receive the same clearance provided by the state.
The Pac-12 CEO Group is scheduled to meet Friday to discuss the conference's options.
"Getting the local county approvals as soon as possible would allow our student-athletes and our coaches to start what we think of as normal practice," Scott said Wednesday during an interview on ESPN's SportsCenter. "And then the best-case scenario is six weeks of practice, training camp and starting [the season] end of October, early November. But that's still subject to county approvals, which we don't have yet."
When asked on SportsCenter if he thinks it's possible for the Pac-12 to be included in the College Football Playoff, given a potential late start to the season, Scott said, "We're behind the eight ball. There's no question about that."
"But we determined early on, we're only gonna play if we can do it safely and in a way that's consistent with our medical professionals' comfort level -- that we're not increasing the spread of this virus by playing football. So no doubt, we are behind others. But if we get the approvals rapidly, then we will be able to have a very meaningful season and be in the hunt."
President Donald Trump, speaking at his news conference Wednesday, urged the Pac-12 to "get going" with its football season.
"I want to recommend that the Pac-12 also get going because there's no reason why Pac-12 shouldn't be playing now," Trump said. "Pac-12, you're the only one now. Open up. Open up, Pac-12. Get going."
Scott released a statement Wednesday morning that said schools in California and Oregon did not have approval to start contact practices, and by the afternoon, state officials from both California and Oregon issued comments indicating that it is unlikely that governmental restrictions will prevent a Pac-12 season from taking place.
Roughly five hours after Scott's statement was released, Newsom said there is nothing in the state guidelines that prevents the Pac-12 from resuming. However, he cited a scenario that seemingly contradicted that assertion.
"We put out, I think, thoughtful guidelines and again, in partnership with the NCAA, about cohorting during workouts and practices," Newsom said. "Now, this manifests very differently depending on the sport. Basketball cohorting of up to 12 may be a little easier than football up to 12, but offensive teams, defensive teams are able to coordinate and practice and the like."
Newsom, who was not asked a follow-up question in the news conference, did not explain how state rules that limit cohorts to 12 would permit a football game of 11 players on each side, plus officials, coaching staffs and players on the sideline, to take place. He said he discussed the situation during a phone call with Scott earlier in the day and did not address local regulations that must be adhered to.
"The cohorting guidance only applies to practice. This practice of cohorting facilitates more efficient contact tracing in the event of a positive case; and allows for targeted testing, quarantine and isolation," Rodger Butler, a spokesperson for the California Health and Human Services Agency, told ESPN in an email. "There is nothing in state's guidance that prohibits a cohort from practicing physically against fellow members of the cohort. The cohorting does not apply to competition. The state's guidance outlines steps that must be taken prior to competition."
Butler stressed that the cohort rule was implemented on an interim basis developed in collaboration with the NCAA. He was unaware when the rule could be addressed so that teams in the state would be allowed to conduct full scrimmages in practice.
"We're committed to working with the Pac-12, working with the NCAA, to keep our kids safe, to keep our coaches safe, to keep the coaching staff and friends and families safe and to keep the larger campus community safe," said Newsom, who played college baseball at Santa Clara. "Remember, these are student-athletes, and they're not isolating in a bubble as some of our NBA superstars are. They need to be integrated in one way, shape or form with an academic paradigm, by definition. That's what student-athletes are supposedly all about."
Representatives from both Oregon State and Oregon met with the Oregon Health Authority on Wednesday to discuss the safety plans for the football teams, according to a spokesperson for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.
"The universities have asked for an exemption to OHA's sports guidance, just as Oregon's professional sports team have been given," spokesperson Charles Boyle said. "We have granted that request, and under the new guidance, OHA must receive written plans for approval."
"Let me stress that, up to this point, we have received no written operating procedures for approval from the Pac-12 for the upcoming season, and we have no details from the conference about their new rapid testing proposal. Until we have those details, we can't move forward in the process."
The sports exemption for Pac-12 schools will also require visiting schools from out of state to submit "protocols to the (OHA) and the Governor's office to ensure training, competition and play aligns with all public health guidance and county phase requirements."
Earlier this month, the conference entered into a deal with an FDA-approved test manufacturer to provide daily testing capabilities, which are expected to be operational in early October. If that capability leads to the approval for contact practices to begin, the Pac-12 is expected to use a six-week ramp-up period before it starts playing games, leading to a potential start date in mid-to-late-November, sources told ESPN.
Stanford coach David Shaw told ESPN that although he hopes the new testing protocols will allow his team to practice soon, "I don't know that public health officials are going to be swayed by something that happens 3,000 miles away."
"The thing we all lose sight of because we love our sports and we want to play our sports and we want to watch our sports is that we're still in the middle of a pandemic," Shaw said. "Our public health officials are not putting student-athletes above everybody else. It's still about your county, and hopefully our testing regimen, the practices that we put in place will be satisfactory to our local officials so that we can continue to progress towards playing football."
In early August, the Pac-12 postponed all fall sports until at least Jan. 1 because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, citing the need for rapid testing as a requirement to return safely. That announcement came hours after the Big Ten made the same decision.
Complicating the Pac-12's return are the wildfires on the West Coast that have resulted in some of the worst air quality in the world. Had the Pac-12 been scheduled to begin its season this past weekend, it's possible that several games would have been called off because of air quality on game day or because teams would have been unable to practice during the week.
"We are equally closely monitoring the devastating fires and air quality in our region at this time," Scott said. "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."
On Tuesday, USC players posted a letter on social media to Newsom asking for the state to ease public health restrictions, which would clear the way for a possible return.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis and receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown were scheduled to discuss the letter with reporters in a video news conference Wednesday, but it was canceled after Newsom's news conference to await more clarity.