Cal football season opener canceled due to positive COVID-19 test

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Just as players and fans were reaching peak excitement leading up to Saturday’s Pac-12 kickoff, everything came crashing down in an instant. Cal Athletics announced Thursday that the opener against Washington has been canceled, citing that the Bears do not have a sufficient number of scholarship players available to play.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow, quite honestly. We take the virus quite seriously and have done so for seven months,” said Cal football head coach Justin Wilcox. “Unfortunately, we now have one positive test, and that one positive test resulted in several players being held out due to contact tracing.”

Wilcox announced Wednesday after practice that Cal had a player test positive for COVID-19 for the first time since official Pac-12 testing began. Because of the positive test, a “significant number of players” were held out of practice in accordance with contact tracing protocol.

“It is very disappointing that we will not be opening our 2020 season this Saturday night against Washington,” Wilcox said in a Cal Athletics press release. “My heart goes out first and foremost to all of our players who have been through so much since the pandemic began and worked so hard under difficult circumstances to prepare themselves to play. They have done so well following the protocols that have been put in place, but as we are finding out first-hand, playing football during 2020 is a fragile situation.”

This season, the Pac-12 requires that teams have at least 53 scholarship players available to play, including seven offensive linemen, four defensive linemen and one quarterback. In a press conference Thursday, Wilcox indicated that every player in a “position group that you can’t play without” has been quarantined because of the positive test and subsequent contact tracing protocols. Wilcox added that players outside that position group have been quarantined as well.

The game will be declared a no contest, meaning that it will neither negatively nor positively affect Cal and Washington. The conference prepared for this scenario: The division champions this season are decided based on winning percentage, as it is likely that not all teams will play the same number of games.

Cal’s Week 2 game against Arizona State is likely also in jeopardy, though Wilcox said his team will continue to prepare and return to practice with the players who are not in quarantine. Games have been canceled nationwide across conferences this season, but it seemed like Cal and the Pac-12 had been doing a relatively good job staying healthy up until this point.

While the loss of an entire position group made the Washington game untenable, the contact tracing and subsequent quarantine protocols that resulted in this situation were dictated to Cal by a local public health office, which Wilcox indicated was the city of Berkeley’s public health department.

“We didn’t request to cancel the game; we weren’t able to play the game. Nobody here woke up this morning hoping not to play,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox praised local public health officials, student-athletes and coaches for their attention to players’ safety and health. He repeatedly emphasized Cal’s attention to detail and welcoming attitude when it came to the implementation of new safety guidelines, information and protocols. He also expressed frustration that despite following all of those recommendations and doing “the best they can with information they had,” the team will not be able to play.

The timeline for the return of quarantined players is unclear and is determined by local public health officials, not Cal. Wilcox also lamented the loss of opportunities for players and communicated their frustration. Contact tracing and quarantine standards differ across the country, according to Wilcox, and those differing standards have frustrated some players. More than anything, however, the Bears wanted to play the Huskies this weekend.

“Today, when we were told that they wouldn’t be able to come back, we had a team Zoom and we let them know, and they’re upset,” Wilcox said. “They wanted to play. We all wanted to play.”

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].