Cal Football’s COVID problem: Go Stay Home, Bears!

I am 99% certain that this story won’t surprise any of you. I am 99.5% sure that college football has too many players. And I am 100% disappointed in the stupidity of the behavior of players for my alma mater, which has had to cancel its upcoming game against USC because of a COVID outbreak.

The Bears had 24 players out with COVID on 11/6 that their opponents broke a 20-game losing streak. Getty photo from SFGate.com

The back-and-forth finger-pointing between the Cal sports program and local health officials started before the previous week’s game, when 24 players couldn’t travel to Arizona due to “COVID protocols.” Players, alumni, and sports fans weren’t bashful in criticizing the City of Berkeley Health Services and the university for being overly cautious. However, the dam broke this week, when so many players and staff tested positive that the team had to cancel their next upcoming game. As it turns out, the facts matter, especially when the whole picture is revealed. And, for most of you, who I suspect don’t care about Cal or college football, there are also lessons to be learned.

The Sequence of Events

A few days before the Cal-Arizona football last Saturday, the team announced that 24 players were required to stay home due to COVID protocols. This included starting players, such as quarterback Chase Garber. News reports later clarified that they weren’t staying home just because of exposure to someone with COVID but because they had tested positive themselves.

At least two players said they had later seen negative COVID tests. I infer from this announcement that these players tried to use the negative tests to be allowed to play. However, the City of Berkeley Health Department (DHS) and the university COVID rules require a 10-day isolation, so players stayed home. Arizona broke a 20-game losing streak when they beat Cal, 10-3.

Multiple players (and staff, parents, and fans) complained bitterly that they were being unfairly treated, that rules were being changed at the last minute, and that they couldn’t get straight answers. If you read through all the swamp of exchanged statements, including Twitter comments *shudder*, you might conclude that “get straight answers” really means “be allowed an exception to play or not test at all, despite testing positive or appearing sick.”

Garber, in particular, was annoyed that when trying to “get answers,” the university told him that testing was not mandated but only recommended.

These tests also aren’t mandated but highly recommended so therefore we should have a choice of whether to take a test or not….we have worked too hard to have someone take this all away from us, it is wrong…

Cal Quarterback Chase Garber, 11/8

Yesterday, Cal football announced that this Saturday’s scheduled game against USC will be postponed for three weeks. The reason? A COVID outbreak across 44 players and staff.

To summarize so far, multiple players tested positive but still wanted to play. And were angriest that they had been tested. Might this be a good time to take a moment in memory of Shawn Kuhn, a 21-year-old Georgia bulldogs fan majoring in sports exercise, who died of COVID on October 14? Kuhn was, by the way, fully vaccinated.

Does it Remind You of Tolkein?

The Cal sports director, Justin Wilcox, pointed out that 99.5% of its football players and staff were fully vaccinated. The university, as a whole, has said that 99% of its students (and staff) are vaccinated. Initially, I thought the team was exaggerating or perhaps just estimating that “the vast majority” was vaccinated. But Wilcox got specific in a public statement yesterday and indicated that there was one player and one staff member not vaccinated across the organization.

In other words, 42 of the 44 players and staff with COVID were vaccinated.

Ninety-nine percent sounds pretty safe, but perhaps you have seen the movie Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers? Do you remember when the entire population of Rohan crowded into the impenetrable fortress, Helm’s Deep? Which was then under siege by orcs and urukhai, one of whom found a tiny sewage drain on one side? And, also, Saruman invented gunpowder?

Yeah, 99% isn’t quite good enough.

By the way, the Arizona football team says that it is 100% vaccinated. A shout-out should also go out to the players and staff of Ole Miss, which among the vaccine-pitiful states, also are 100% vaccinated.

The Larger Sequence of Events for Cal

There seems to be a lot of discussion focusing on what the university said vs. what the city said. At least one player claimed that the university told him he could “be arrested” for not submitting to testing. Clarification later revealed that this was in response to the university health official being pressed on what the most extreme penalty might be and that the official stressed that wouldn’t happen for the players. But that part didn’t make headlines.

The City of Berkeley Health Director had also had enough by Tuesday morning. In addition to emphasizing that 44 people had contracted COVID, he stressed that the team was cavalier in their attitude toward COVID:

Cases emerged in an environment of ongoing failure to abide by public health measures. People in the program did not: Get tested when sick, stay home when sick, [or wear] masks indoors.

Statement by Berkeley Public Health to SFGate.com

What isn’t mentioned in the discussion over the word “mandate” are a few other pieces of information:

  • There are 114 players on the Cal football roster in 2021.
  • There are 61 football coaches and staff on the Cal roster in 2021.
  • Half of Cal’s football was cancelled last year because they kept having COVID outbreaks on the team
  • Cal traditionally has a mediocre football team, with a 62-70 record in the ten years prior to COVID, even though they had invested heavily in the team
  • Cal’s football stadium, refurbished in 2011-3, created a $438 million debt which the university had to step in to bail out in 2017
  • Cal’s sports director, Justin Wilcox, earns $3 million in pay this year
Chase Garber, Cal quarterback. Photo from KRON.com
  • Cal’s quarterback, Chase Garber, hails from Newport Beach and played in the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl (loss to TCU) and the 2019 Redbox Bowl (win over Illinois)

Garber’s vision of a potential NFL career is probably getting dimmer by the minute, and he clearly sees COVID and officials to blame (not him, because he “worked so hard”). Plus, despite having a chunk of their season cancelled last year, the team is in danger of having a chunk cancelled this year.

The Numbers that Really Matter

Forget the football part. Here’s what should make you prick up your ears.

Of the 175 coaches and players, 173 were vaccinated. We don’t know which vaccine, but assume it doesn’t matter. Forty-two vaccinated and two unvaccinated people now have COVID.

A high percentage of them were not careful in their behavior, according to the city’s health statement. Some were sick, several were trying to avoid testing even when sick, and many were not masking.

What to conclude? Keep your mask on. If you’re sick, get tested and stay away from other people. Also, you still might want to avoid large indoor gatherings.

Most of all, 175 players and coaches is too damn many people on a college football team. Forty-four positives? Aren’t there only supposed to be 11 people on a team?

1925: the Pottsville Maroons and the Chicago Cardinals

3 Replies to “Cal Football’s COVID problem: Go Stay Home, Bears!”

  1. I do like this and I agree with all of your points but one. There are 11 players on a side, not on a team. Offense and defense are very different, so count a division 1 college team as needing at least 22 players. Also, they have to have subs for injured/tired/sick players as well. And, there’s special teams that do only certain things like punt returns or kicking off. There are coaches for all of those different areas and other staff like trainers, physical therapists, other medical specialties, equipment staff and so forth. It can be a lot of people.

    Professional football is allowed a 53 player limit on the active roster and 90 total to allow for the aforementioned playing specialties and a practice squad. College should follow similar rules, but they don’t. At least, Cal doesn’t.

    1. Quite right–what I get for making a snarky comment about 11 players because I couldn’t think of a “better ending.” It CAN be a lot of people. Should colleges be spending that money on that much of a team? Do they actually “make a profit” that funds the school? it’s debatable. Since Alabama and Georgia undoubtedly draw non-football students because of their winning team, they could arguably have their school be benefited by football. Since CAL has been perpetually mediocre (I remember joking in the dorms in the 1980s that they’d win their first two games, then play the real teams–USC, UCLA etc), I always thought that they should push their winning teams instead, like rugby, women’s softball etc.

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