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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A Grip on Sports: College football’s near future is clear as a car’s windshield after a dust storm

In this Sept. 21, 2019, file photo, fans watch the first half of an NCAA college football game between Washington State and UCLA at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash.   (Associated Press)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • Now what? Now that the Pac-12 and Big Ten have postponed their football seasons until next year, what happens? Do the other Power 5 conferences follow suit? Does anyone really play a spring season? Do athletic departments find a way to not close due to financial losses? Does anyone have the answers?


• If you’re looking for answers here, we can’t help you. Sorry. The best we can do is point you in the right direction. Anything else would be mere speculation.

As if we would ever do that.

Let’s take those questions in order. The Big 12 announced their revised schedule yesterday, signaling the conference’s willingness to at least try to find a way to play as the leaves fall. It’s actually not a bad idea. Trying, I mean. Maybe all the mitigation efforts states in its footprint, like, you know, Texas, will begin to bear fruit in the next month. COVID-19 cases will fall, hospitalizations will decline and fewer people will be dying.

Though, if the past is prologue to the future, all that will do is encourage some folks that the worst is over and they’ll head out again, repeating a cycle we’ve seen play out a couple times in the past six months. Plus, schools will have opened by then, meaning more interaction between the players and their peers. If the schools in the three remaining Power 5 conference playing can successfully navigate that better than, say, the St. Louis Cardinals, more power to them. Maybe they deserve a national title just for that.

More than likely there will be an outbreak somewhere, a game will be postponed and the whole thing will fall apart. Or be ignored. It’s hard to tell when oodles of money is involved.

Then what happens with Washington State and the rest of the Pac-12 schools? Will they be able to actually play after the calendar turns to 2021? The answer to that question is actually out of their hands. It all depends on the people in the conference’s footprint and whether they’ve made the conscious decision to limit the virus’ spread. There are positive signs already, though they are spotty. The virus is declining in Eastern Washington but not on the other side of the Cascades. It has seemed to peak in parts of other Pac-12 states as well. Again, will that be a continuing trend or a call to loosen up? Not even Anthony Fauci knows that answer.

Playing in spring will take some finesse – as Jon Wilner describes here – but it is doable. If there is a will. And resources. The players will want to. The fans will want to. But will the schools? And just how will they get it done? There is no roadmap or previous experience to draw from. Will it be a moneymaker or loser?

Which brings us to the financial aspect of the Pac-12’s and Big Ten’s decisions. Each school in those conferences just had a huge crater blasted in their budgets. Football is the financial driver of the bus that is college sports. Has been that way for decades. Now the bus is sidelined, with the driver walking down the road, a la that scene in “A League of Their Own.”

Even if the driver returns after the first of the year, the bus may be out of gas or have a dead battery by then.

Look at WSU. The Cougars already are dealing with a cumulative athletic department debt of almost a $100 million. And that’s happened when times were good. What happens now? The conference is exploring the option of offering schools loans. But the Washington State athletic department already has one of those, underwritten by the school’s administration. (Whether it will ever be repaid is a column for another day.) Is it financially responsible for the university to take on even more debt to keep the athletic department from falling into ruin? The heart may say yes, but the head may not.

After all, the decision this week to postpone football went against emotion. The Pac-12, as a group of schools, examined the evidence and made a decision based on science. Sentiment was left at the door. It was told it had no place in the discussions and nothing to do with what was best for the students who play sports. Good.

But sentiment, and its kissing-cousin, tradition, will have to be given a seat at the table for the athletic department to be able to justify itself if the cumulative debt begins to reach $150 million or so. That seems like real money.

And a real big problem.


WSU: Theo Lawson tried to answer some questions this morning with this story. I saw tried because, like those above, some answers are not possible until time passes, facts become clearer and decisions are made. I know. We want clarity now. Not going to happen. … Larry Weir built the latest Press Box podcast around the decisions, talking with Paul Sorensen about them. … Around the Pac-12 and college sports, every school is trying to adjust to the football decision. For some, like WSU, Washington and Colorado, it means even more time until their first-year coach gets to, you know, coach. … We talked about the financial costs above. Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes puts a number on the loss if football doesn’t happen at all: $50 million. … Utah athletic director Mark Harlan sees the same level of financial loss. … Such losses will mean pay and position cuts at Colorado. … The same will happen at Arizona. … The Beavers are still working out this week. … One has to wonder if Oregon’s Penei Sewell will play in the spring. … USC and UCLA are trying to move forward. … Here’s a group we haven’t heard of a lot, the players’ parents. … We have, however, heard from fans. Their experience will be different no matter what. … In basketball news, some conferences are discussing a bubble for their sport. It may work, it may not. And the season could overflow into May. … Whatever happens, Sean Miller is in. … Finally, well-respected L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke describes his bout of COVID-19.

EWU: If you like to watch “Hard Knocks” (and there is someone in my household that does), the first episode will hold an Eastern-based Easter egg. Ryan Collingwood find out easily and passes it along. (And by Easter egg, I mean the equivalent of the one your mom left in the middle of the front lawn for your little brother to “find.”)

Preps: Though high school fall sports have been postponed in Washington, the folks in Idaho are still moving forward. What happened at one Utah school might be instructive. If you read the story, notice the infected players were only discovered after family members were also infected. There was no testing of the players before then.

Tennis: Twenty years ago this summer, Spokane’s own Jan-Michael Gambill made a storybook run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals. David Oriard looks back at that magical tournament.

Mariners: We wrote about the M’s bargain-basement bullpen last Sunday. Well, the Rangers found a real good deal against it last night, rallying for a 7-4 win after Seattle was up 4-0 early. The M’s are off today. … The Mariners’ farm system is now one of baseball’s best. How did that happen?

Seahawks: It’s a weird year. And the Hawks’ first real day of training camp was also weird. As it should be. … Though there were no fans at the Hawks’ first preseason practice, if there were, they all would have been watching new safety Jamal Adams … One more pass rusher on the Seahawks’ radar has landed with another team. … Is there any chance the NFL follows the local colleges and universities lead? Nope. Comparing them is silly, considering the differences in finances, number of teams and, most importantly, unionized work forces. … Chris Carson is away due to a family emergency. … Howard Mudd was an outstanding player and an exceptional offensive line coach. As well as having the perfect movie-villain name. He died this week.


• After I was finished writing this morning, I realized I had another college football-related question: will there be two playoffs this season? After all, if half the teams play in the fall and half in the spring, it might happen. Maybe, even, two champions. Like the bad old days. Until later …