Playing football should not be prioritized over preserving public health

CAMPUS AFFAIRS: If Cal football wants to play, it must cement a greater commitment to public safety

Illustration of a Cal football player running and leaving behind him a shadowy trail of covid particles.
Jericho Tang/Staff

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America loves football. Pandemic or no pandemic, professional and collegiate leagues have gone to great lengths so fans and players can see touchdowns scored, and the Golden Bears are no exception. 

On Sunday, Cal played UCLA at the Rose Bowl after both California teams had their original season openers canceled because of positive COVID-19 tests. The Bears’ original game against Washington was canceled because of a positive test that, through contact tracing, took an entire position group out of play. And despite harsh critiques from players that other teams with a greater number of positive tests have played, the Berkeley Public Health Division, or BPHD, did not budge on the cancellation.

The back and forth between Cal football and BPHD is an odd one to watch during a global pandemic. A mismatch of priority is at play — why are so much time and effort being poured into helping a nonessential sport take the field?

To comply with BPHD standards and maintain public safety, football players are getting tested for COVID-19 on a daily basis. The team practices in groups of 75, a figure much larger than the circle of 15 recommended by BPHD. Moreover, the team travels to many of its games — an activity dissuaded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — usually to areas with much higher COVID-19 rates than Berkeley. The Bears’ upcoming game against Oregon State, for instance, may take place in Corvallis, where the case count is mounting by almost a thousand a day.

Team members and coaches claim that players are doing all they can to avoid contracting COVID-19, but a positive test does not come from nowhere. Cal football players are residents of Berkeley and interact with the community on a daily basis. If they want to play, they must do so safely to ward off widespread infections, and thus far, they have not hit the mark. 

Cal football truly must strengthen its plan to protect public health. Implementing a bubble quarantine scenario similar to the one the NBA played in is one possibility. This can be accomplished (without renting out Disney World) through the creation of a formal agreement for players to sign, promising that they will stay within their bubble, social distance and uphold other pillars of BPHD’s public health guidelines. In this way, the players can redouble their commitment to staying COVID-19 negative. 

Ensuring that team members are isolating — either in their current living situations or in an empty residence hall — is paramount, as is staunchly following BPHD’s guidelines. Players should also wear masks during practice and play; if the MLB can do it, so can our Bears.

Players and fans may love football, but there are lives on the line. The widespread cancellation of games because of positive tests on many Pac-12 teams is an indicator that public health officials should not be challenged and public health guidelines should not be questioned. The Bears should not roll on if playing means putting the larger Berkeley community at risk.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the fall 2020 opinion editor, Katherine Shok.