Be positive: Cal football not to blame for cancellations, confusion

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Francisco Pizarro, Spanish conquistador and grade-A dirtbag, toppled the long-standing and powerful Incan empire in 1533 with only 168 men, 27 horses and one cannon. He did this by accepting a friendly invitation from the Incan emperor Atahualpa in 1532 and turning his ceremonial olive branch into a bloodbath, killing thousands of unarmed Incas and taking the emperor hostage.

Atahualpa bargained for his life by offering to fill the room in which he was held captive once with gold and twice with silver, and Pizarro agreed to the ransom. The Incan people delivered the riches to Pizarro, but instead of releasing the emperor who had welcomed him to his country, Pizarro executed Atahualpa, betraying him one final time and crumbling the empire in one fell swoop.

Suffice to say, playing by the rules doesn’t always mean everyone else will.

Cal learned this the hard way last week after it was rocked by its first positive COVID-19 test, announcing Nov. 4 that an entire position group was quarantining due to potential exposure to COVID-19. The isolated contacts have tested negative for 10 consecutive days but have not been allowed to practice — a huge detriment to the team’s ability to effectively prepare for a game that was just called off due to opponent Arizona State’s rash of infected players and staff.

Cal is clearly not the only one experiencing COVID-19 complications — in fact, the Bears’ single positive case is an outlier considering the scope of college football.

Maryland vs. Ohio is the third Big Ten game to be canceled outright, following Wisconsin’s two consecutive weeks without play. The SEC is battling a disaster of colossal proportions, with four weighty games — LSU vs. Alabama, Georgia vs. Missouri, Texas A&M vs. Tennessee and Auburn vs. Mississippi State — now postponed indefinitely. Within the Pac-12’s confines, Utah vs. Arizona was axed last weekend along with Cal’s much-anticipated season opener against Washington, and Washington State had 32 players sidelined during its game for an undisclosed reason. Stanford and UCLA both played their games last weekend despite positive results, and Oregon State is projected to play this weekend even with a COVID-19 case of its own.

The unifying and damning commonality among all of these cancellations? Positive tests, obviously, but usually there are just a handful — the real stumbling block for college football this season is contract tracing.

Cal head coach Justin Wilcox and Athletic Director Jim Knowlton have made a consistent, robust effort to adapt Cal football’s procedures to the highest level of safety. Players avoid the locker room, practice with only 75 athletes on the field at a time and participate in daily antigen testing, among other precautions. The protection of players has always been at the forefront of the program’s agenda, and the athletes and coaches alike have been adamant about placing well-being over the season itself.

But protocols among football programs this year are about as inconsistent as the sizing of women’s clothing across brands. Every team is operating under the jurisdiction of their local health departments, which have proven more different than night and day, ergo the reason behind the 32 players out at Washington State and why Stanford can play despite being just 50 miles away from Berkeley.

“Our medical advisory team has done an amazing job and our medical team here of just how the contact tracing works and all the protocols we go through,” said Huskies head coach Jimmy Lake in a statement following the cancellation of their season opener. “The exact situation that just happened down there would not happen here at the University of Washington.”

Yeah, obviously! King County has had a 5.1% positive test rate over the last 14 days, whereas Alameda County has averaged a 2.7% rate in the last week. One could speculate that higher rates are indicative of looser health department policies.

The city of Berkeley is the stickler of all sticklers and has sent Cal football essentially to voicemail the past week, refusing to budge on quarantine protocols regarding the contacted players despite their negative test results. The Bears had no idea whether or not they were playing this weekend until complications on ASU’s front came to light. Despite Cal’s bona fide attempts to make right with the city, the Bears are now left paying the highest price for simply playing by the rules Berkeley has set for them, which appear to be much stricter than in most other municipalities.

Don’t get me wrong — having sports is a privilege during a pandemic. It’s not a right to be able to play, and Berkeley’s strict protocols are what is making the Bay one of the safest places in the country to be during the pandemic. But Wilcox, Knowlton and the players are rightly frustrated with the fact that they are being held to an impossibly high standard while programs across the country are allowed to play with many more cases and much less fallout. The cancellation of the season opener was no fault of Cal’s, especially not with how seriously the program has handled steep changes to its modus operandi.

“We recognize the significance of the virus. This is not minimizing the virus. What we want to know is how we can be better so these things don’t happen,” Wilcox said. “Obviously, we don’t want to spread it to the community. We want to be good neighbors and members of the community — we just are looking for some feedback on how to do it better.”

Although the perspectives of both sides are respectable, Cal must see that the situation is ultimately out of the program’s control. Wilcox, like Atahualpa, extended his hand of friendship to the city and was met with a catastrophe. There’s a room filled with gold — socially distanced Golden Bears, actually, waiting to see if their pleas to play have been heard — but it’s not always safe to bargain for your freedoms.

Another famous conqueror once said, “The die has been cast.” But the least the city of Berkeley can do in the future is make sure the Bears know how it rolled.

Emily Ohman covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @emilyohman34.