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Sports >  NCAA

Pac-12 stock report: Hope from the CDC but not the CFP; Utah’s break and ASU’s mess; and the rebirth of the Pac-12 Networks

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) throws against Southern California in the first half during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Salt Lake City.  (Associated Press)
Utah quarterback Cameron Rising (7) throws against Southern California in the first half during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (Associated Press)
By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

Reaction to the latest news, quasi-news and non-news …

Rising: College sports.

Sounds crazy, right? A dozen football games are canceled each week, and basketball is struggling for traction as opening day arrives.

But a development out of Atlanta on Tuesday carries momentous consequences:

The CDC is “finalizing” a change in COVID-19 recommendations that would reduce the quarantine period for close contacts to seven-to-10 days from the current 14-day policy, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The two-week quarantine period for close contacts is why teams like Utah and Washington State miss two games instead of one after a handful of players test positive.

It threatens to sideline an entire basketball team for two weeks if one player becomes infected.

What’s more, the CDC doesn’t allow a close contact to test out of quarantine:

Under current recommendations, a player could be exposed to the virus and placed in quarantine, then test negative each day for 13 days and still have to spend the 14th day in quarantine. Public health officials throughout the Pac-12 footprint are enforcing CDC guidelines.

Now, it seems, a needed change is coming.

“Frankly, we probably should have done this sooner,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA Commissioner, told CNBC.

“The reality is when you look at when people ultimately contract COVID after an exposure, the vast majority of people become contagious, become infected, after three-to-five days. There are outliers. There’s people who would contract the illness seven-to-10 days after exposure.

“But the number of people we’ve seen that actually will contract the infection a full two weeks after their documented exposure is very small.

“And so we need to weigh the practicality of the recommendations that we’re issuing against what benefits we’re going to derive from them. Asking people to quarantine for a full two weeks after an exposure is just going to drive more people not to comply with the rules.

“We’re better off doing something that’s practical. And seven-to-10 days is going to capture the vast majority of people who are ultimately going to contract an infection after an exposure.”

The Hotline cannot emphasize this enough: Reducing the quarantine period to seven-to-10 days could save the football and basketball seasons.

Pausing for one week is much, much less impactful than shuttering for two.

Rising: Utah

The Utes went through COVID hell for two weeks after a number of players were exposed to the virus outside the football environment.

Eventually, they emerged from isolation and quarantine, took the field last weekend, lost to USC and then … were faced with another potential disruption:

Their upcoming opponent, Arizona State, remains down for the count with COVID.

But because of Washington’s availability — the Apple Cup has been called off but could get played at a later date — the conference had an able partner for the Utes and wasted no time arranging the matchup.

It announced Tuesday afternoon that the teams would play in Seattle on Saturday night.

Why Seattle?

We, too, wondered how the home team would be determined — both UW and Utah had road games canceled this week, after all.

But according to Utes athletic director Mark Harlan, the location was determined by the … wait for it … TV trucks.

That’s right: ESPN needed a decision yesterday in order to have its equipment available for a Saturday night broadcast.

The conference knew at dawn that the Huskies were available to play Utah or a non-conference opponent.

Utah’s status wasn’t clear until later in the day.

Harlan tweeted the following on Tuesday evening:

“Issue was TV partner needed location by yesterday, due to holiday week. Many TV production trucks are based in Northwest, etc. Otherwise, game would have be in SLC. Its all good…with no fans, its a whole different deal this year.”

Harlan ended the tweet with four words that describe the season for everyone: “Just thrilled to play.”

Rising: Pac-12 Networks

The basketball season starts Wednesday. Four Pac-12 games have been canceled or postponed, but six are currently — tentatively — scheduled to tip Wednesday afternoon and evening.

Three of those games are on the Pac-12 Networks, starting with Cal-Oregon State at 4 p.m. in a hastily-arranged nonconference game in Corvallis.

It’s the first live competition broadcast by the networks since the pandemic took hold.

To be specific: It’s the first live event broadcast by the networks in 259 days, since the opening round of the men’s tournament on March 11.

During that time, the networks have been hit hard with layoffs and furloughs, revenue has cratered, staff morale is low and compelling programming has been sparse, save for football analysis and recap shows.

It’s all deeply unfortunate given the number of hardworking people currently or previously employed and the network’s mission to market the schools and their athletes.

When there are no sports — when there are no live events to broadcast and to prop-up shoulder programming — that’s challenging.

The basketball season doesn’t change everything for the networks.

But it changes enough, for the moment, to make them viable.

Falling: Pac-12 playoff chances

We’re not prepared to state the conference has been eliminated from the CFP race.

This far from selection day (Dec. 20), with events so fluid, there remains a non-zero chance of the Pac-12 grabbing a spot in the semifinals.

But had you asked the Hotline prior to Tuesday’s rankings release to summarize a worst-case scenario, it would have looked exactly like the 4 p.m. reality:

— Only two teams, Oregon and USC, among the 25

— Neither of those teams in the top-12

— Behind two Big 12 teams with two losses (Oklahoma and Iowa State)

— Behind three or more teams from the SEC, ACC and Big Ten

— Behind both Brigham Young and Cincinnati

The unprecedented nature of the season created uncertainty over the selection committee’s approach:

To what extent would it favor the eye test — whether a team looks playoff-worthy — compared to metrics derived from wildly disparate schedules.

The Pac-12 needed style points to count more than data points because the late start has limited the latter.

Clearly, the committee watched the Pac-12 contenders and determined they were lacking in both areas:

Oregon and USC are without quality wins (i.e., victories over ranked opponents) and haven’t shown the weekly dominance needed to pass the eye test.

We cannot argue with that assessment.

The problem for Oregon and USC moving forward is the paucity of opportunities to change the narrative.

Neither team has a ranked opponent on the schedule until (or unless) they meet in the conference championship.

That could change for the Ducks if, for example, Washington, enters the rankings in the No. 20-25 range. But it’s difficult to envision that making enough of a difference.

Falling: Arizona State

Things have gone all wrong for the Sun Devils since four minutes remained in the season opener.

They squandered a two-touchdown lead to USC, then flew home and were decimated by COVID.

Let’s start with this: We hope all the infected players, coaches and staff are recovering and that no one required hospitalization or will suffer lasting effects.

The situation equally concerning and perplexing:

Numerous teams have missed two games because of positive tests and quarantine protocols, but we are unaware of any other Power Five program having to miss three consecutive games.

The Sun Devils couldn’t play Cal in Week Two, couldn’t play Colorado in Week Three and just announced Tuesday that they cannot meet the player threshold for Saturday’s scheduled date with Utah.

Per the Pac-12 statement:

“This decision was made under the Pac-12’s football policy due to Arizona State University not having the minimum number of scholarship players available for the game as a result of return-to-play protocols involving local public health-prescribed quarantines for contact tracing as well as the time required for cardiac testing evaluation results to be completed.”

(In addition to the lost competitive opportunity for the players, each canceled game costs the conference $5 million in TV revenue.)

Exactly what’s happening in Tempe, we do not know.

ASU does not release the number of tests conducted or positive results for the athletic department generally, much less any team-specific data.

In that regard, the Sun Devils are arguably the least transparent program in the conference when it comes to COVID information — an approach dictated by central campus.

It’s deeply unfortunate given that this is a public health crisis and ASU is a massive public school in an urban setting.

The Hotline asked a university spokesperson why ASU doesn’t disclose COVID case data for athletics — just the numbers, no names — and received this reply:

“We are not breaking out cases by any subset (e.g. by athletic team or residence hall) to protect the privacy of affected individuals.

“Our view is that in certain situations it may be easy to deduce individual positives therefore we have made the decision to not release figures by athletic department or any other department or specific residential location at the university.”

In our view, that view is nonsense.

It’s nonsense because 100 miles down the road, Arizona, which is part of the same university system — and whose president is a doctor — has released periodic updates with the number positive tests for athletes.

It’s nonsense because Cal and UCLA, which are part of the University of California system — which is, ya’ know, in California — have determined releasing data isn’t a violation of student privacy.

And it’s nonsense because the Pac-12’s two private schools, USC and Stanford, have been arguably the most transparent when it comes to disclosing the number of tests conducted and the positive cases within athletics.

So we’re left to guess and wonder exactly what happened within the ASU football program.

Athletic director Ray Anderson issued a statement Tuesday that said, “The timing of the previously reported positive results coupled with the return-to-play guidelines have stretched over parts of three weeks, which makes it unsafe for several of our players to compete.”

How were the Sun Devils healthy enough to field a full team in the opener at USC and then, a few days later, suffer an outbreak so severe that it knocked them out for three games (and counting)?

How could the virus have spread through the program over the course of multiple days when players were (presumably) tested the night before the game and then again (presumably) when they reconvened as a team the following Monday?

The unusual duration of ASU’s shutdown — “Over parts of three weeks,” as Anderson explained — suggests something went very wrong.

Could it have been a false negative prior to the game and flight home?

Could it have been a missed contact trace?

Could it have been an insufficient testing cadence?

Could it have been a series of very, very bad decisions by players during their time away from football activities?

We’re left to guess at the cause and wonder when — and if — the Sun Devils will get back on the field.

Jon Wilner can be reached via email at pac12hotline@bayareanewsgroup.com. Find his Pac-12 newsletter here.

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