The restart of Pac-12 football began Monday, as programs across the conference open their training facilities to players for voluntary workouts.
It began Monday for Washington State, where there have been 27 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Whitman County.
It began Monday for Arizona State, where there have been 18,692 confirmed cases in Maricopa County.
It began Monday for Utah, where cases are rising in Salt Lake County, and for Oregon State, where there are no new cases in Benton County.
Jon Wilner’s Pac-12 Hotline is brought to The Seattle Times through a partnership with the Bay Area News Group. Wilner has been covering college athletics for decades and is a voter in the basketball and football AP polls, as well as the Heisman trophy. He shares his expert analysis and opinions on the conference for the Pac-12 Hotline.
It doesn’t yet begin for the California schools, but they are expected to welcome players back in coming weeks as local health restrictions ease.
No two municipalities are the same and no two football programs are moving in lockstep. They’re following the broad guidelines set by the Pac-12 while applying whatever local twist is necessary.
But this much is clear:
The Pac-12 made the smart move opening its facilities to the athletes despite the rising case counts and public angst and uncertainty about the pandemic’s next move.
In fact, the Pac-12 made the smart move because of the rising case counts and public angst and uncertainty about the pandemic’s next move.
The athletes are safer on campus.
The more time spent in the facilities, the less time spent everywhere else.
“With gyms opening up, you can’t control that,’’ USC coach Clay Helton said. “You don’t know who’s going in and out and what’s happening in that environment.
“And you’ve got some kids with eight or 10 people in their homes, and you don’t know where they’re going. Are they going to bring (the virus) into the home?
“When we bring the players in, it’s a controlled environment.”
From a distance, the optics look sketchy: Why allow athletes back on campus for workouts when the campuses are closed?
Well, the campuses aren’t closed. They never were. Thousands of students have been living in dorms and apartments across the conference since the mid-March shutdown.
Many are international students who couldn’t get home; some simply didn’t have a safe family environment to which they could return.
And even now, there are students participating in activities on campus.
“The athletes aren’t the only ones here,’’ Helton said. “There are kids here for ROTC, fine arts, research. It’s not just football.”
The athletes aren’t confined to their homes and off-campus apartments. They’re out and about, engaging in whatever facets of life are available to the community at large.
Those communities include some of the hottest coronavirus spots in the country.
They can go to the movies or restaurants. They can eat fast food. They can congregate for makeshift pass-and-catch at a local park with chopped-up surfaces.
Or they can head over to the neighborhood gym for a 45-minute workout.
“If you don’t do it for them, they’ll do it on their own somewhere,’’ said Rob Scheidegger, Washington’s associate athletic director for health/wellness and head football trainer.
“We want to be proactive.”
The health-and-safety protocols in place at athletic facilities are tighter than those around town. The physical distancing is better. The surfaces are cleaner.
USC’s players, like all those in the Pac-12, will be tested for Covid-19 upon their arrival at the facility. Face coverings will be required. There will be daily temperature checks and health evaluations.
The Trojans have created two workout areas, Helton said — one indoor and one outdoor, each covering 11,500 square feet.
Eight players will be allowed in one area at a time, with a strength coach and a trainer. That’s it — no assistant coaches, just the eight players and two staffers in an area covering one-quarter of an acre.
After the workout, the area will be disinfected for an hour.
Every Pac-12 school has undertaken similar measures.
The facilities are safer than the local gym.
They are safer than the local anyplace.
“There are two pieces to this,’’ said Scheidegger, who serves as UW athletic department’s liaison to King County health officials.
“It’s not just the how, the resources that we make available and the facilities. It’s also the why. It’s what we can do through the process to look at the student-athlete’s total health.
“We’ve tried to identify the kids that are struggling, regardless of what team they’re on, and develop a plan to provide them with what they’ve missed.”
The decision to open workout facilities — not just in the Pac-12 but across college football — was about more than the workouts.
— It was about providing athletes who had offseason surgery with the proper environment and oversight for rehabilitation.
— It was about providing athletes on the lower end of the socio-economic chain with proper nutrition.
(Many have been eating too little, or too much fast food. When workouts conclude, players will receive a load of healthy snacks on their way out the door.)
— And it was about providing the athletes with a sense of normalcy to benefit their mental health.
One athletic director told the Hotline that anxiety has soared among athletes at his school.
Helton sees it, too.
“They so much want to engage with their teammates and get into a routine,’’ he said. “They are creatures of routine.”
How this ends — whether there’s a full season or no season — is anyone’s guess.
But the decision to open doors for athletes wasn’t merely a necessary first step to an on-time kickoff. It was the prudent move for the health and safety of the athletes.
And the way the case counts are surging across the west, the Pac-12 football facilities could soon be regarded as the safest place in town.
firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter: @wilnerhotline. Jon Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP top-25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree.