For months, the athletic department at Cal thought it was doing everything just right to keep the coronavirus out and get games going again. The football team’s season opener on Saturday was supposed to be the university’s first athletic competition since March. Like hundreds of other colleges, Cal was determined to make it happen, safely.
“We’ve designed what we do,” Athletic Director Jim Knowlton said. “And we’re probably the most strict of any school around.”
Then came a positive test for a player on Monday, a follow-up positive test on Tuesday, and a public announcement of the diagnosis on Wednesday. Still, the game was on the schedule.
Behind the scenes, university health officials met with Berkeley health officials, whose rules dictate the college’s procedures after a positive test. Contact tracing was underway; the unnamed player who tested positive was asked about all his contacts over the previous five days. An entire position group was kept from practice, though no one else had tested positive.
Knowlton warned the university chancellor and the commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference that there were concerns about Saturday’s home game with Washington.
On Thursday, the big news broke: The game was canceled. It was erased over a single positive test.
“This one stung worse than when we canceled the season, when the Pac-12 canceled back in July,” Jay Larson, a senior associate athletic director overseeing the football program, said in reference to a decision that was eventually reversed. “Just to come this close, two days from being able to do what these guys dream of doing.”
More than anything, the postponement was a reminder of the fluidity and fragility of playing college sports during a pandemic.
On Saturday, the Pac-12 will become the last major college conference to start its football season. It was criticized for being slow to proceed, as some other top conferences have been playing since September. The Pac-12 argued that, as a result, it was better positioned to keep players safe.
But two of its six games scheduled for Saturday — Washington at Cal and Arizona at Utah — were canceled late this week because players had tested positive.
No one seems to be getting a better handle on limiting the spread of the virus. Across college football, dozens of games have been postponed or canceled because of outbreaks.
Top coaches and players have had to sit out of games. Coach Nick Saban of Alabama nearly missed a game after a positive test, and top-ranked Clemson’s quarterback, Trevor Lawrence — a leading candidate to win the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player — will miss Saturday’s game against No. 4 Notre Dame. The Pac-12 cancellations are among at least seven on Saturday.
Conferences everywhere are trying to make order from battered schedules and scrambled standings, while insisting that playing college football this fall is a wise and necessary endeavor that has nothing to do with making money.
That was the quicksand that the Pac-12 tried to tiptoe into, just as the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the United States rose steadily again.
This fall, The Times has highlighted the challenge facing college sports through the experience of one major athletic department — Cal, the flagship campus of the University of California system, with 30 sports and a $100 million annual budget.
Like the rest of the Pac-12, Cal initially said it would wait until 2021 to play games, postponing all its fall sports. In October, nudged by the availability of daily testing and the growing sense of peer pressure to join the party, the Pac-12 decided to start football after all.
The league created a conference-only, seven-game season and scheduled it to begin this weekend. There would be no time for bye weeks, because the Pac-12 wanted its champion to be eligible for a four-team national championship playoff that starts on Jan. 1.
Cal, coming off an 8-5 season, has hopes for a league title behind the experienced quarterback Chase Garbers. Practice began last month. Cal tested athletes before each workout, required masks at all times, had athletes dress and lift weights outdoors, and preached the importance of avoiding the virus.
Then came game week.
Before every practice, each Cal player is required to undergo a swab test. Results come back in 15 minutes. On Monday, Larson got a call: A player had tested positive.
False positives are not uncommon, so there was little alarm. But the player, who was still asymptomatic, was held out of practice and immediately took a genetic test, as all Cal players do twice a week. Those tests are considered more accurate, but results can take a day or more.
There was no practice on Tuesday because of Election Day. During a regularly scheduled Tuesday morning meeting involving administrators and the football team’s head coach, Justin Wilcox, the group discussed the Pac-12 regulations about isolation in case several players got swept up by contact tracing. The conference requires at least 53 scholarship players to be available for a football game, and minimum numbers for three positions: quarterback, offensive line and defensive line. (Cal officials declined to name the position of the infected player.)
On Tuesday afternoon, the positive test was confirmed. University health officials contacted Berkeley health officials, who began contact tracing. The player was questioned about his contacts over the previous five days. Cal even pulled film from previous practices to study which players had extended contact with him.
Berkeley regulations state that those in close contact with someone with the coronavirus must quarantine for 14 days.
“By Tuesday night, we had a pretty good sense that the entire position group could be impacted,” Larson said.
Knowlton sent a message to warn the chancellor. On Wednesday morning, Berkeley health officials approved a plan for the football team’s practice on Wednesday, without any players from the affected position, and said they would have results from the contact tracing by 11 a.m. on Thursday.
Knowlton called the Pac-12 and Washington, and Cal announced on Wednesday evening that a player had tested positive. Wilcox, the coach, acknowledged that Saturday’s game was in jeopardy.
At about 10 a.m. Thursday, Cal got the word from Berkeley officials: The entire position must quarantine. Depending on when the contacts occurred, Cal’s Nov. 14 game at Arizona State might be at risk, too. The university hopes continued negative results might allow it to proceed as scheduled.
But Saturday’s game with Washington was declared a “no contest” by the Pac-12.
Wilcox expressed frustration that one positive test could cancel one or more games, when he has seen teams in other parts of the country continue playing. “I absolutely agree that there are different interpretations of contact tracing,” he said in a call with reporters on Thursday afternoon.
But Knowlton knew all along how quickly the best plans could be undone. Now he and Larson want to know how to prevent it from happening again. More of the university’s sports are supposed to start in the coming weeks.
On Friday, Knowlton and Larson held a meeting to figure out what went wrong. By Friday night, they still were not sure.
“We don’t mind getting our test back that says you got an ‘F,’” Knowlton said. “But we’re a learning organization. Tell us what questions we got wrong, because we’re going to go back and study those areas so that we get A’s.”