Five weeks after suspending its fall season, the Pac-12, the last holdout among the Power 5 conferences to greenlight fall football, reversed course on Thursday and announced the restart of games with an abbreviated fall season that will commence Nov. 7.
The reversal would not have been possible without the cooperation of state governments, particularly those of Oregon and California, which have exempted the conference from gathering and contact restrictions and interpreted playing football as not necessarily noncompliant with their public health measures.
It appears that West Coast political leaders heard the increasingly loud calls for the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten, which, under intense legal and political pressure, reversed its own postponement decision on Sept. 16 and restarted football. That same day, Oregon governor Kate Brown and her state’s health authority granted exemptions to the University of Oregon and Oregon State from strict COVID-19 regulations that prohibit full-contact sports and limit hours for weight training, conditioning, meetings and other activities essential to Division I football. In order to resume, the two Pac-12 schools must still furnish and gain state approval of comprehensive practice and playing plans as well as their policies for contact tracing, testing and quarantining.
Meanwhile in California, Governor Gavin Newsom clarified that none of his state’s COVID-19 restrictions “prevent these games from occurring.” The state and its municipalities have adopted various pandemic-related measures designed to curb the spread of the virus. After USC football players, among others, openly pleaded with the governor that restraints on practicing in groups larger than six to 12 persons legally prevent the playing of football games, Newsom responded that his state will work with conference officials to make football fully compliant.
While recent developments in available COVID-19 testing—specifically rapid result antigen testing—make Pac-12 play more aligned with public health and university objectives, the conference’s reversal also comes at a more legally advantageous time than when it and the Big Ten postponed their seasons on Aug. 11. Should the Pac-12 (or its member schools) be sued at some point for negligence in deciding to play, its leaders can correctly highlight that the other Power 5 conferences had already reached the same decision, casting their course-correction as a reasonable, industry-standard move in light of precedent and known scientific developments.
The Pac-12’s decision also helps to insulate the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten from potential liability. Power 5 conferences that proceeded with their seasons would have been more vulnerable to legal arguments that the decision was unsound if at least one had determined that it was, in fact, unsafe. That’s all changed with the Pac-12’s move. Now, if the determination to play proves unwise, one conference’s reasoning can’t be used against the others.