It was hard to remember as Michael Schill spoke on Thursday night that the school he runs as president, Nike U. (more formally known as the University of Oregon), has an athletic program that is all flash and sizzle: a glitzy basketball palace, slick mix-and-match football uniforms, and a glass study hall for athletes that is nicknamed the Jock Box.
If there is a school in the Pac-12 Conference — and really the nation — that best personifies the runaway commercial enterprise that college sports have become over the last quarter century, it would be an otherwise unremarkable university that, thanks to the munificence of Nike founder Phil Knight, has emerged from a remote, rainy college town to become a national brand.
But as Schill explained why the Pac-12 was making a hard pivot back toward football this fall, 45 days after saying in a 12-page document it was not safe to do so, he veered away from the science of the coronavirus pandemic to make an unprompted point.
“This has nothing to do with money,” Schill said, scolding anyone who would suggest otherwise.
As if to prove it, Schill said that in the conference presidents’ deliberations, the hundreds of millions in TV and advertising revenue that keep the college sports industrial complex churning never came up.
Of course, the reason money didn’t come up is that it didn’t have to. It stood there like a big green elephant in the (virtual) room.
U.C.L.A.’s athletic department was $18.9 million in the red last year, Stanford dropped eight sports earlier this summer that were becoming too costly, and Washington State estimates its athletic department debt will be $99 million by next summer.
And The San Jose Mercury News reported last month that the conference was laying the groundwork on a nearly $1 billion loan program if there was no football.
How much television revenue will be distributed to the schools, whose 12-game schedule has been reduced to seven, has not yet been determined. But Jim Knowlton, the athletic director at California, said in an interview Friday that having football this fall could spare his department, which was looking at a $55 million shortfall with no fall sports, from having to take out a $20 million loan.
“That would be great news for us since we’ve got debt service already,” said Knowlton, who added that salary cuts, operations reductions and other savings would account for the balance.
When the Pac-12 punted on fall football on Aug. 11, it laid out three primary concerns: high infection rates in campus communities, health complications from the virus and a need for more frequent testing.
The presence of rapid antigen tests, which can allow athletes to be tested daily, was viewed as a critical breakthrough. The tests are not as accurate as PCR tests, which must go to a lab for processing and can pick up tiny amounts of the virus. But if they are done daily, scientists believe they can be effective in keeping the virus from spreading.
Still, the testing did not prod the Pac-12 back by itself. The conference secured an agreement on Sept. 3 with a manufacturer to provide daily tests for its football players by the end of the month, yet Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott did not contact state and local public health officials asking for exemptions that would allow teams to practice until the Big Ten announced last week that it would reverse course and play this fall.
Now, after the Mid-American and the Mountain West followed the Pac-12’s decision to return, all 10 conferences in the Football Bowl Subdivision will have some sort of season in 2020.
The other changes in the circumstances surrounding the pandemic have been marginal.
Some cardiologists believe myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart in Covid-19 patients, is not as concerning as they might have believed in early August, but there is also widespread agreement that the long-term and short-term effects the virus has on the heart are still widely unknown and that more research is required.
The spread of the virus has gotten better controlled in some areas — like Los Angeles, which is home to U.C.L.A. and Southern California — but there is a case to be made that the conference is in worse shape now than it was 45 days ago.
Four schools are in counties where the seven-day average is above the 25 new daily cases per 100,000 threshold that the Harvard Global Health Institute classifies as uncontrolled spread: Colorado (43.3), Washington State (33.7), Arizona (28.9) and Utah (28.0). Also, there are four schools that are just now welcoming students back to campus, an event that has led to outbreaks around the country. Oregon State began classes Wednesday and Washington, Oregon and U.C.L.A. begin the fall term next week.
Lane County, which includes the University of Oregon, had 48 new cases on Wednesday and another 47 on Thursday as students arrived back on campus.
“The community side of it doesn’t really seem to matter,” said Scott Jedlicka, an assistant professor of sport management at Washington State who noted that National Guard troops have been brought in to do testing in Pullman, Wash. “When the major conferences first started shutting down in August, the rhetoric made me think we could be on the cusp of a multiyear shutdown: This disease is too dangerous, we can’t control the environment and play safely. I remember thinking what is going to change until we get a vaccine to move that needle? Now, we have the answer.”
As Schill made his case in a remote news conference that the Pac-12 was being deliberate and judicious, and had the health and welfare of its athletes at the forefront, it is worth nothing that the most diligent plans do not always play out as they were penciled out. The testing protocols must be put into place, and school officials who are conducting the testing must be trained. The first Pac-12 games are scheduled for Nov. 7, a lifetime away.
It seems almost certain there will be some hiccups. On Friday, Georgia State postponed its Saturday game with Charlotte because of an outbreak on its team, bringing the number of games that have been postponed or wiped out in four weeks to 22 in the top tier of college football.
Whether that is a sign that these plans, cobbled together in a time of unprecedented uncertainty, are working or that college football isn’t worth the risk may simply depend on your level of investment.
John Branch contributed reporting.
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