The Pac-12 Conference is joining the other four most powerful leagues in college sports in deciding to play football this fall, defying the risks of the coronavirus pandemic to salvage a season for fans and the financial health of its schools.
The Pac-12, which said last month that its teams would not compete until at least 2021, said Thursday that it would attempt to play as soon as Nov. 6. The decision came eight days after the Big Ten, which had also elected not to compete this semester, reversed its approach and announced that games would begin in October.
Independent medical experts and N.C.A.A. officials, who have limited authority over the top tier of college football, have questioned the propriety of playing during a pandemic that is ravaging the country at large and, in particular, college campuses. But the leading conferences, which have imposed testing mandates and other tactics to try to prevent the virus from spreading within their locker rooms, have increasingly insisted that they can manage the pandemic’s risks and complications.
Larry Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner, said Thursday that the league’s recent contract for daily testing of athletes was “a game-changer in enabling us to move forward with confidence that we can create a safe environment for our student-athletes while giving them the opportunity to pursue their dreams.” And the league’s medical advisory panel said in a report released Thursday that it had agreed it was possible to play, in part, because of improvements in pandemic conditions.
Under the Pac-12’s plan, its teams, which include California, Oregon, Stanford, Southern California and Washington, will play seven-game conference schedules. The league championship game is expected to be played on Dec. 18, two days before the College Football Playoff’s selection committee is scheduled to release its final rankings.
Beyond the Big Ten and the Pac-12, the other so-called Power 5 conferences — the Atlantic Coast, the Big 12 and the Southeastern — have already begun play, or intend to beginning this weekend.
In addition to announcing a projected Nov. 6 start for football games — with fans barred from the stadiums — the Pac-12 said it planned to begin its men’s and women’s basketball seasons on Nov. 25, more than a month earlier than its initial timeline had permitted.
Thursday’s move by the Pac-12 restored a kind of reluctant unity to the Power 5 after they spent more than a month publicly fractured around football. And it left more than 30 states poised to hold college football games this autumn, a touchstone of American sports, though many will be held with few or no spectators in the stands.
The decisions by the leagues — some publicly unflinching, others openly deliberating from one month to the next — carry enormous implications for college athletics. By playing football, even without every stadium packed with fans, schools will collectively earn hundreds of millions of dollars from broadcast rights and sponsorships that will prop up budgets that had been threatened with severe cuts.
But they are also imperiling what remains of their public standing with the wager that they will be able to protect the students who play for them. Before some of their teams have played a single down this season, the leagues have been accused by critics of prioritizing money and power over health and safety.
“These athletes are commodities and they’re assets and they’re not making any money staying at home and staying healthy.,” said B. David Ridpath, a former president of The Drake Group, which seeks reforms in college athletics. “To sit there and say, ‘We pulled it off and persevered,’ is, to me, just P.R. hogwash. It’s a business, and the financial house of cards kind of fell.”
The Big Ten’s reversal last week was most often linked to medical advancements, but it came with the conference facing political pressure, litigation and outrage so pervasive that top coaches were openly questioning the league. The Pac-12 confronted far less outrage after its announcement on Aug. 11, the same day the Big Ten postponed its season, that it would not play this fall.
At the time, the league detailed its medical advisers’ thinking, warning that “community prevalence remains very high in much of the Pac-12 footprint” and declaring that there needed to be greater testing capacity. It stifled any internal dissent, but the league’s caution was helped along by public officials who imposed restrictions on gatherings, effectively forcing cancellations of practices.
Last week, though, not long after the league became the first Power 5 conference to strike a deal for daily testing, the atmosphere around the conference began to shift rapidly. Players lobbied Gov. Gavin Newsom of California to ease restrictions, and he and Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon agreed that the state governments would not impede the Pac-12. The local authorities also widely agreed to pave the way for athletics.
Still, the hours before the meeting of Pac-12 leaders showed how turbulent the path to — and through — a season might be: Officials in Boulder County, Colo., home of the Colorado Buffaloes, restricted gatherings of people who are between the ages of 18 and 22 and specifically said that people in that age range could not participate in practices for intercollegiate sports teams.
But the league has been under mounting pressure, particularly since it became the lone Power 5 conference poised not to play this autumn.
President Trump, who had been badgering the Big Ten but, according to conference officials, did little to aid that league’s plans, turned his public attention to the Pac-12 last week, once the Big Ten had relented.
“You’re the only one now,” the president said of the league last Wednesday. “Open up. Open up, Pac-12. Get going. Said the same thing to Big Ten and they did, and now I’m saying it to Pac-12. You have time. You really have time right now. Get going.”
By then, the league was already considering its options — and by the end of the week, it was telegraphing the unanimous decision its chancellors and presidents made on Thursday.
Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner, did acknowledge that the situation could still change.
“We will continue to monitor health conditions and data,” he said, “and be ready to adjust as required in the name of the health of all.”