OAKLAND — Gov. Gavin Newsom insisted Wednesday that California’s coronavirus rules do not prohibit NCAA football, responding to statements from a powerhouse program and the Pac-12 conference that portrayed the governor as a major roadblock to starting the season.
“There’s nothing in our guidelines that prevent these games from occurring,” Newsom told reporters, adding that schools “can resume football. There’s nothing in the guidelines saying the Pac-12 cannot move forward.”
Why it matters: College football is big business and has become a major flashpoint in a national struggle over coronavirus restrictions. While Newsom did not actively call for games to commence, he also did not come out against athletes returning to the field.
College football has become a national litmus test for coronavirus restrictions. President Donald Trump and other conservatives have urged a return to games. After the Big Ten Conference announced Wednesday it would start the season in late October, Trump tweeted that “It is my great honor to have helped!!!”
The Big Ten’s announcement makes the Pac-12 the only remaining conference among the so-called Power Five to have its 2020 season on hold. That could put pressure on the Pac-12 — and Newsom and state officials — to find a way for games to resume. Oregon, whose Gov. Kate Brown has taken a similarly restrictive tack as Newsom, also remains a hurdle for the conference with two Pac-12 programs there.
Background: Football players at the University of Southern California, a perennial juggernaut, had written Newsom lamenting excessive “restrictions imposed by state and local health officials in California that prevent us from resuming practices and competitions.”
“Please let us play,” the letter says, saying they need to start playing games to be eligible for a national championship.
It’s not just the athletes. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement Wednesday that “universities in California and Oregon do not have approval from state or local public health officials to start contact practice.”
California’s official guidelines lay out a series of benchmarks that collegiate programs must meet to hold practices and games. To resume competitions between teams, programs must have the capacity to conduct tests and get results within 72 hours before “high contact” games; must notify other schools of positive tests within 48 hours; and must either have access to adequate contact tracing in their immediate area or supply personnel to conduct the process.
The USC players wrote that “the current reality is that there are too many restrictions imposed by state and local public health officials” to resume practices and competitions. They pointed in particular to rules limiting practice to groups no larger than 12 and their inability to gather as a full team.
USC had to suspend practices last month after eight football and water polo players tested positive.
Like cross-town rival UCLA, USC is in Los Angeles County, which remains in the state’s most restrictive reopening tier. While coronavirus rates have fallen since the summer peak, Los Angeles health officials have been more reluctant to allow reopening than those elsewhere because of concerns that coronavirus could again surge.
Still, NFL teams have been allowed to practice and play in Los Angeles County and California without fans. Professional teams face less stringent rules than collegiate athletes.
What’s next? Newsom could face increasing pressure from California Division I universities, which rely on football programs to generate a significant share of athletic revenues through television contracts, sponsorships and donations. Look for state and local health officials to work with collegiate programs to figure out how they can comply with rules and testing guidelines to resume competition.
However, many fall activities remain tenuous, especially as university towns across the country grapple with controlling coronavirus spread among student populations. Even if schools hold most classes online — as California’s largest universities are — students are still congregating off-campus. Last month, USC announced dozens of students tested positive during the first week of school even though the university is delivering most instruction online.
Even if college athletes retake the field in California, don’t count on spectators packing the stands. Newsom has consistently said that mass gatherings like sporting events and concerts will not resume in California until we get a vaccine and herd immunity.
Juan Perez Jr. contributed to this report.