During the summer, it looked like college sports was doomed. Half the college leagues had decided not to play. It was a disaster for Fall sports. But as the school year returned, college leagues returned with them. First, the Big 10 decided it wanted to play in the Fall. Then, the PAC-12 decided they could trust their students and communities enough to play safely. What could’ve gone wrong?
Well, CU Boulder learned that bringing 30,000 students back to a party school would compromise Fall sports and community health. COVID-19 cases spiked so much that the City of Boulder banned gatherings of 18-22-year olds. That’s a problem for training, practicing, and competing. Here’s how the PAC-12 decided to return, how Boulder could keep the Buffs out, and how likely the Buffs are to play in November.
Why The PAC-12 Left Then Changed Its Mind
On Aug. 11, the PAC-12 announced that it would suspend sporting events through the end of 2020. That made sense. The pandemic was just beginning to come under control, and school was about to start. School opening was a contentious issue–it’s still a contentious issue–and it looked like college sports weren’t going to make sense during the pandemic. College sports aren’t in a bubble like their professional counterparts. Classes and social lives aren’t pandemic-friendly forces.
But on Sept. 23, the PAC-12 announced its return to football, basketball, and winter sports. Teams with the “necessary state and local health approvals” can start playing on November 6. Why the abrupt shift? The PAC-12 Medical Advisory Committee learned some new ways to make it happen. The Committee decided PAC-12 sports could proceed because, since August:
- Most of the PAC-12 areas have less community spread of COVID-19.
- Every PAC-12 member could monitor every athlete’s cardiac health.
- All PAC-12 members have coronavirus tests with 36-hour turnarounds.
The PAC-12 has been busy for the last six weeks. The first and third developments are obviously important. But the second one is based on a small study of athletes’ hearts. It found that COVID-19 can do heart damage to young healthy athletes. The study didn’t have a control group. It just found scarring and inflammation that’s abnormal compared to a regular person’s heart – although that’s imprecise, too. The link between COVID-19 and heart damage needs much further study. But until it’s proven either way, young athletes’ cardiac health must be monitored.
With this infrastructure in place, the PAC-12 CEO’s decided to give Fall sports a chance.
The Buffs May Not Be Able To Practice As A Team
That’s all well and good for college sports fans. However, CU Boulder’s notorious party culture and Greek life threw a wrench in the school’s practices. About two weeks after classes resumed, COVID-19 cases spiked in Boulder. Further, that spike was driven by Boulder residents aged 18-22. The Boulder public health website wrote a snarky report drilling those two points home. Shortly afterward, Boulder County issued a public health order banning gatherings of more than two 18-22-year-olds.
However, the public health order is more specific than that. It also bans residents at 37 addresses from leaving their homes, except for essential travel. Among the activities the public health order bans at these addresses are:
- Using public transportation or rideshare.
- Congregating in common areas, unless residents wear masks and social distance.
- Go to work unless residents “believe they will experience food insecurity or housing insecurity.”
These addresses aren’t randomly selected, either. The listed addresses have been selected for strict stay-at-home fit one or more of these requirements:
- Addresses on the Hill.
- Collegiate group homes.
- History of violating health orders.
Boulder is trying to get its new infections under control, and it’s seen some early success. However, it’s still too early to say whether the public health order will be lifted. It was issued on September 24 and will expire on October 8. At that point, Boulder’s young people will either be able to congregate again or the health order will be extended.
And its extension would strain the Buff’s PAC-12 teams.
How Boulder’s Public Health Order Could Be Extended
The gatherings banned by Boulder’s public health order includes team practices. Football and basketball teams are larger than two people, so players have been running individual drills. But passing drills will only get the Buffs so far. They’ll need to train as a team if they hope to be competitive. The teams can’t get together on or off-campus, so they’re depending on Boulder’s public health order running out the clock.
If that public health order is extended another two weeks, it’ll end on October 22. That would leave the Buffs two and a half weeks to practice together. An additional two-week extension would take the Buffs right up to the weekend before game time. It’d be a disaster for CU Boulder’s team. But the Buffs have a shot at a competitive–albeit abbreviated–season. They just have to rely on the student community to abide by public health rules.
So, Buffs fans shouldn’t keep their hopes up. The Hill is where the fraternities, sororities, and partiers live.
Plus some well-intentioned sophomores seeking what passes for affordable housing in Boulder.
I used to live on the Hill, so I’m biased. But if the fate of the Buffs rests on the Hill’s residents, the Buffs may as well skip the 2020 season.
Where The Buffs Are At Now
The Buffs are making the most of a challenging situation. The PAC-12 made changes and commitments that made Fall sports possible. The PAC-12 CEO’s and their colleges likely thought the college sports revenue was worth the “measured” risk. In the fiscal year ending in 2019, CU’s Athletic Department made almost $32 million from football and men’s basketball broadcast rights alone. Athletics make good money for the school.
But the public health risk is significant, too. The students are likely to be okay if they get sick. But they could spread the virus to the older coaching staff and their families. Additional infections could strain Boulder’s healthcare capacity. There are only so many clinics and hospitals for vulnerable Boulderites to seek care from. The City wants to keep the virus under control, so their medical facilities don’t overflow. Keeping gatherings to a minimum is the City’s best chance at doing that.
The Buffs are caught between competing interests. The PAC-12 is important for the university’s financial health. But strict social distancing and stay-at-home policies are good for the city’s public health. The Buffs are in a tight spot, and it may keep them out of this year’s PAC-12 conference. But it’s part of keeping the Boulder public safe, and that would make a tough PAC-12 year worth it.
It’s certainly a better reason for a lousy Buffs season than past lousy Buffs seasons.