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Sports >  WSU football

John Blanchette: Washington State’s COVID-19-caused cancellation is disappointing, terrible, heartbreaking … but mostly inevitable

UPDATED: Sat., Nov. 21, 2020

Washington State offensive lineman Hunter Mayginnes pats quarterback Jayden de Laura on the head after the Cougars fell to Oregon in last Saturday’s Pac-12 game at Martin Stadium in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-RE)
Washington State offensive lineman Hunter Mayginnes pats quarterback Jayden de Laura on the head after the Cougars fell to Oregon in last Saturday’s Pac-12 game at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-RE)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

That asterisk we’re putting next to the 2020 college football season?

How about an exploding emoji instead?

And now it’s Washington State’s time in the soda pop can with an M-80.

With the Cougars’ charter flight idling on the runway in Pullman on Friday morning, ready to whisk them off to the Bay Area, the Pac-12 pulled the plug on Saturday night’s rendezvous with Stanford – the Cougs unable to come up with the 53 available scholarship players required to keep it game-on. Nine Cougs turned up in COVID-19 protocol over the course of the week – five of them Friday – and this along with the injured, those who’ve opted out of the season or any who’ve fled into the NCAA transfer portal left WSU under the minimum.

It was, athletic director Pat Chun said, disappointing. Later upgraded to terrible. Finally, heartbreaking.

The one left unsaid? Inevitable.

This is the third week of the Pac-12’s delayed, TV-studio season, and the Cougs and Cards become the fifth game called off. Schedules are being composed on an Etch A Sketch, which seems to get a shake every few minutes.

UCLA and Cal, their partners shut down last weekend, improvised to play an unscheduled Sunday game on a few days’ notice. Utah finally plays on Saturday for the first time this fall, presuming the morning’s testing prior to the game against USC isn’t a catastrophe.

Checking your local listings for the game in your area is as worthless as not pulling your mask up over your nose.

Through last weekend, 15% of the games in the Football Bowl Subdivision had been canceled or postponed. Fifteen were shelved last weekend; this weekend’s count is up to 19.

Protocols are being followed, health and safety are paramount, prudence and caution rule the day. This is accepted on faith. All precautions are being taken – except, you know, sending 50-100 players out to mix it up at close range in practice and games. Now Pitt and Virginia Tech are taking the step to wear masks when they meet up tomorrow which is, well, something.

But whatever the care being taken, COVID’s gonna COVID.

The virus might not have Nick Saban’s winning percentage but, well, it got Saban a few weeks back, even if the Alabama coach never betrayed so much as a cough.

Playing college football this fall was hardly a unanimous verdict – nothing around the pandemic has been. The “essentialness” of it certainly remains in dispute, except to the principals who are fully invested and the millions of devotees who see a Saturday game as their birthright.

If that sounds harsh, try a reaction check. Not to single out Coug fans here, because Arizona State and Utah and others have lived through it, too – but when the news came down Friday, was the first lament for any players who may have contracted the virus or for the fact that the weekend’s game was kaput?

And, a tick later, that next week’s Apple Cup might be in jeopardy, too?

Bet that verdict wasn’t unanimous, either.

If you paid attention to the predictions last spring that there would be another surge of the virus come chilly weather, then this schedule upheaval was easily anticipated. Some conferences baked in make-up weeks – the Pac-12 being late to return to the party costing them that option. So such disruptions even then were regarded as, uh, the price of doing business, a truly unfortunate posture.

You’ll notice that the only college teams playing are the ones that bring in a check from the networks.

The institutions that cash those checks protest that, no, they’re doing it to fulfill the opportunity they pledged to their players – that taking away football when it can be played simply can’t be justified.

How’s the volleyball team feel about that?

It’s just a fact that without TV’s money, there would be more layoffs, more furloughs, more cutbacks in the overgrown jungle of college sports. That’s no more appealing than the devastation that’s been done to service industries or the live entertainment field or any public concern. Still, it’s a brow-wrinkler to consider any resources that may be taken away to keep football going. Here in Spokane, for instance, there are patients who aren’t seeing their COVID test results for five or six days. But Pac-12 teams are taking them daily.

Which seems an odd allocation to service a season that’s so, well, meaningless.

Again, not to the players and coaches. This is their calling.

But what’s been created here? Games once aimed at campus and community amusement played in front of no – or few – spectators. Crazy quilt schedules that offer limited means of comparison, and possibly less satisfaction – some teams may well play three or four games. Competitive integrity compromised with certain position groups quarantined due to protocols. Playoffs for the elite, yes, but many of the second- and third-tier bowls in jeopardy.

And, beyond the number of opt-outs, the fact that the NCAA has decreed that every player will get this year of eligibility back regardless.

Has it kept players safer, just by being mindful of their away-from-football interactions? Undoubtedly. But then, the Cougs went from zero to nine in the protocol in five days, too.

Now comes the fret over the Apple Cup, as guidelines say positive tests and contact tracing require isolation for 10 and 14 days. Can the Cougs clear the standards and get enough bodies out there to kick it off on Friday? Can the game be moved to Saturday? Sunday?

Meanwhile, health officials coast to coast are urging families to limit their Thanksgiving gatherings lest the spread of the virus picks up even more speed.

But, hey, need a game to watch while scarfing down a turkey sandwich the next day.

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