Washington practiced the day its football season was postponed — “a good, fun, energetic practice,” in the words of head coach Jimmy Lake.
Halfway through, though, it started to get a little less fun.
That’s when Lake and his staff got word the Pac-12 Conference was leaning toward postponing the fall season. And by the time practice ended, Lake had to stand in front of his players and break the news.
Lake walked the Huskies through the last few months, commending them for how they’ve dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, after he told them the Pac-12’s decision, he turned the reins over to UW’s medical staff to explain the reasoning.
While Lake and his players were understandably disappointed with the outcome, he expressed support for the Pac-12’s choice during a media teleconference on Friday.
“This was the right decision,” Lake said. “The number one thing is the health and safety of our players and our staff and right now, there’s way too many questions than answers. I don’t want our team to be guinea pigs. I don’t want our staff to be guinea pigs. If things are not going to be safe, then we need to err on the side of caution and I know that is what our medical advisory group did for the Pac-12 and that’s what happened with the Big Ten.”
The Pac-12 and the Big Ten are currently the only Power Five conferences that have postponed the fall season with the Pac-12 canceling all sports competitions through the end of 2020. While the ACC, Big 12 and SEC have said they’re moving forward, Lake doesn’t expect it to stay that way for long.
If Lake is correct, all five major conferences could be looking at potential spring seasons. What would it take to make that happen? Rob Scheidegger, UW’s Associate Athletic Director for Health and Wellness and the head football trainer, explained the necessary health and safety steps during Friday’s call.
Scheidegger focused on the same three areas of concern as the Pac-12 medical advisory committee: Community prevalence, health outcomes related to the virus and testing capacity.
To play in the spring, Scheidegger said, disease prevalence needs to drop in Pac-12 cities.
“I think that there are public health benchmarks that we are looking to meet that our Pac-12 advisory group has put together for us,” he said. “We want to see those numbers within those guidelines that have been set by our conference advisory group.”
Testing availability will also be a significant factor.
UW doesn’t currently have point-of-care tests, so it uses nasal swabs that athletes self-administer under the supervision of the medical team. The UW Medicine lab then returns the results in 24 hours or less, but Scheidegger said that quick turnaround time is not consistent across the Pac-12.
“That was part of the concern that our medical advisory group had with moving forward with competition,” Scheidegger said. “But 24-hour turnaround tests also have limitations because there’s a window of time where we don’t know the status of individuals and it makes it difficult for us to ensure there aren’t student-athletes and staff bringing the virus into our footprint.”
Point-of-care tests are being developed, Scheidegger said, but the timeline remains unclear. Along with PCR tests, which test for the presence of an antigen, UW also tests athletes for antibodies when they return to campus. So far, 250 athletes have been tested with 12 positive cases and six positive antibody tests. UW conducted more than 1,000 total tests with a less than 2% positive rate.
“We have great testing right now,” Scheidegger said. “We feel like we can create a safe environment right now for a certain level of physical content, but not to the level that we can compete. We’re adjusting our protocols to make sense with what the Pac-12 medical advisory group is recommending.”
The third factor in preparing for a spring season requires a better understanding of the short- and long-term effects of COVID-19, particularly when it comes to cardiac issues.
Myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, has been found among athletes in several conferences, according to a report from ESPN. Caused by viral infections, myocarditis has been linked with COVID-19 “at a higher frequency than other viruses” and “left undiagnosed and untreated, it can cause heart damage and sudden cardiac arrest, which can be fatal.”
There are also other health and safety concerns to consider, like asking athletes to play two grueling football seasons in the same year. Because of that, Lake proposed shortening the spring season to eight games.
“Then I believe we need to delay the start of the 2021 season into October, probably finish up into February of 2022,” Lake said. “Then we can get back on track in the year 2022 and start football regularly in September. We definitely don’t want to put undue wear and tear on our players with close back-to-back seasons and I believe the format that I just mentioned will help with that.”
Scheidegger said the key is to schedule the seasons in a way that allows for proper recovery.
“There’s health issues surrounding competition and proper rest periods,” he said. “We’re going to have an evidence-based discussion about that and move forward in a way that’s in the best interest of our health and wellness of our student-athletes as well, knowing that it’s important to them to have the ability to participate and compete. We’re going to balance those things over the next few weeks and look at all the scenarios and make sure moving forward, as we’ve said all along, in a way that protects student-athletes.”
Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Sama Paama has decided to retire from football for personal reasons, Lake said. Paama was a four-star recruit in the Class of 2019. … Senior walk-on long snapper Luke Lane finished his degree and decided to move on from the program to pursue a medical career.