Timeline: Documents reveal the Pac-12’s struggle with California government over return for football

When the Pac-12 announced a deal with Quidel Corp. in early September to acquire daily antigen tests, commissioner Larry Scott hailed the partnership as a “game changer” that could lead to the return of football sooner than expected.

But 11 days later, the conference had made little progress and, according to documents obtained by the Hotline, was immersed in bureaucratic back-and-forth with the state of California that threatened to overwhelm efforts to play football before Thanksgiving.

“So we are starting in the right place, and the next step will be a conversation with the California Department of Public Health,’’ Pac-12 executive Erik Hardenbergh wrote to campus officials.

That email was written on Sept. 14 — a week-and-a-half after the Quidel deal and with the Big Ten on the brink of announcing its return.

Later in the same email, which was the most instructive of the documents obtained, Hardenbergh added:

“This could take some time.”

But the next day, everything changed. The USC players went public with an appeal to California Governor Gavin Newsom, and suddenly Pac-12 football had the momentum required to return sooner than later.

A Hotline investigation into two of the most important weeks in conference history suggests the football restart might have been delayed until late November — and might not have happened at all — without the USC players stepping forward with their plea.

The documents and interviews reviewed by the Hotline indicate that even after striking the deal for antigen tests, the conference was focused on basketball, targeting a football restart after Thanksgiving and making only incremental progress in efforts to ease state restrictions and allow the California teams to practice.

The Pac-12 declined to comment on the specifics of discussions with state or university officials that are outlined below.

However, it’s important to note that the conference office typically serves as a coordinator on policy matters, not as an advocate.

For that reason, the string of internal emails cited below included members of not only the four athletic departments but also the universities’ government relations teams.

Those teams, along with the conference office, had been working with state and local authorities for months during the pandemic, providing regular updates on matters that impacted athletics and the universities as a whole.

*** List of people referenced in the timeline:

Scott: Pac-12 commissioner
Hardenbergh: Pac-12 chief of staff (liaison to athletics and campus government affairs)
Maggy Carlyle: Pac-12 general counsel
Lande Ajose: Senior Policy Advisor for Higher Education (state of California)
Jennifer Simon-O’Neill: chief of staff for Cal athletics
Mike Bohn: USC athletic director
Brandon Sosna: chief of staff for USC athletics
Kim Harmon: UW football physician; member of Pac-12 medical team

*** Background on this article:

Our request for public records was submitted to Cal in the early afternoon of Sept. 14, in an attempt to better understand the Pac-12’s strategy for convincing the state of California to expand cohort limits to a level that would allow the four teams to practice. The requested was filled late last week.

No anonymous sources have been used in the timeline below.

Links are included when appropriate to provide context.

On days with multiple developments, the events are listed chronologically. When available, times have been included.

Thursday, Sept. 3

• Approximately 2 p.m.: Pac-12 announces a partnership with Quidel for daily, rapid antigen testing. Scott calls the deal a “game-changer for the conference. (Source: Pac-12.)

Friday, Sept. 4

• Scott appears on the Dan Patrick Show.

— On the Pac-12’s return-to-play timeframe: “Whether it’s in the fall or Jan. 1 remains to be seen. This isn’t our only challenge. We’ll need some help from the counties, public health officials to bless this and say it’s okay.”

— On playing football in the fall: “If we get government approvals and implement this testing, certainly we could. (Basketball) is probably the first decision we’ve got to make: Can we revisit the decision to not play basketball before Jan. 1st and maybe start the season at the same date or close to when the rest of the country is? And then, on a parallel path, we have to weigh up does it makes sense to start the football season in late November, early December? Or does it make sense to get through finals, get through the holidays and start in January?” (Source: DP Show.)

Monday, Sept. 7

• USC’s Sosna follows up with Hardenbergh about formulating a collective strategy — with the California schools — for approaching state officials. (Note: The Trojans are not subject to public records requests and declined to comment on the specifics of exchanges with the conference or other universities.)

• At 8:20 p.m.: Hardenbergh reaches out to a collection of campus officials from the four universities, including members of the government relations teams and the athletic departments: USC’s Janet Lopez and Sosna; Cal’s Adrian Diaz and Jay Larson; Stanford’s Erika Liliana Bustamante, Ryan Adesnik and Patrick Dunkley; and UCLA’s Matt Elliott and Jennifer Poulakidas.

“Colleagues — I hope you all had a good and (relatively) relaxing Labor Day weekend. Following up on our recent announcement regarding daily testing, I would like to convene this group to discuss how best to follow up with Gov. Newsom and our local health authorities. Brandon from USC had the good idea to revisit the distinction the Gov has used between college and pro sports given our new testing regime, and to potentially send a joint letter from the Pac-12 and our four CA-based institutions. I’ve created a Doodle poll with options for tomorrow or Wednesday for a quick 30-minute call. Please let me know if any of these times for for you, and we can add more options.” (Source: email)

Tuesday Sept. 8

• At 2:28 p.m.: Hardenbergh updates the same group:

“Based on the subject matter of our discussion, we think it makes sense to add a member of our Medical Advisory Committee. We have asked Dr. Kim Harmon of UW to join us, who is an expert in testing, and are seeking time slots for tomorrow or Thursday to convene the call. It makes much more sense for her to be on the call and help us frame the argument as we discussed it. I will be back for additional options for the call. Thanks for your patience.” (Source: email)

• At 5:11 p.m.: Hardenbergh to the group:

“I’ve added seven different opportunities for tomorrow. Please indicate what works for you.” (Source: email)

Wednesday, Sept. 9

• At 10:24 a.m.: Hardenbergh once again:

“We will hold this Zoom at 4:30 p.m. PT. I am sending the invite now.” (Source: email)

Thursday, Sept. 10

• At 6:33 a.m.: Hardenbergh follows up:

“All — thanks again for the time yesterday. As discussed, I will follow up with Lande in Gov. Newsom’s office today with the update about our testing partnership and a request to have a discussion about the current CA guidance. I expect to have some back and forth and engage members of our Medical Advisory Board to discuss implications of our new testing regimen. Will keep you posted on progress. If anything changes on your end, please let me know.” (Source: email)

Friday, Sept. 11

• Scott appears on KJR radio in Seattle.

— Does he regret postponing the season until Jan. 1? “If we get some good news, we can adapt. I have already had a conversation without our presidents and chancellors. They’re open minded about revisiting in light of the breakthrough we’ve had with the testing. We basically got access to these tests two months earlier than we thought we would. But we’re still subject to public health authorities. Frankly, until we get the blessing of them, I’m not even going to bring it back to our presidents and chancellors to review. I’m hopeful that happens by the end of this month, and then we can revisit and set a new timetable.”

— Could the Pac-12 play football before January? “Well, basketball will probably be upon us sooner. The NCAA is probably going to set a delayed start date for the season toward the end of November, so we’ll probably have to make that call sooner … We’ve started discussing with our football coaches, athletics directors and football minds the pros and cons of starting in January, after you get through finals and the holidays. Or whether there would be benefit in starting a month earlier, maybe in early December. This new testing breakthrough gives us the possibility to start in December, but we still need government approvals, and I don’t know if on balance our folks will think that’s the right move or not. (It’s) currently being discussed.”

— If the Big Ten plays in October and health authorities (in California and Oregon) agree to ease restrictions, could the Pac-12 ‘bump up’ the timeline for football’s return? “It’s hard to imagine things will fall in place that quickly. (Source: KJR radio)

• At 5:17 p.m., Cal’s Simon-O’Neill responds to Hardenbergh:

“Erik: My understanding is that you are meeting with the Governor’s office on Monday.” (Source: email)

Weekend of Sept. 12-13

• Big Ten return-to-play movement gains steam, decision imminent.

Monday, Sept. 14

• At 4:56 p.m.: Hardenbergh updates the group:

“All — Hope everyone is well and stayed safe and healthy this weekend. Below is a quick update on our call with Lande from earlier today.

— Lande was appreciative that we shared the testing update and understands the change in our approach to return to play. I reiterated how our four CA institutions were facing much stricter health policies than our other 8 (i.e., cohort, indoor, no contact)

— Per previous conversations, the state guidance will serve as the ‘floor’ for all counties in CA to determine local policies for our athletic departments

— Without changing the state guidance or variances to the guidance at the state level, no county is going to change their stance or policies

— So we are starting in the right place, and the next step will be a conversation with the California Department of Public Health

Big question is antigen vs PCR testing (which is required in the current CA guidance)

CDPH needs to approve the antigen testing process we are going to enact so that the counties will sign off on it

— Questions about the testing regimen includes (all of which Kim did well on): antigen vs. PCR, impact on contact tracing

— Question about the return to play timeline — Maggy and I took that and explained after testing in place, state and county health approval was the final step.

— Lande committed to fast track their review and committed to getting back to us in a couple days with more feedback from CDPH. We will likely set up a quick call directly with CDPH to get specifics on the testing.

Even with fast tracking, this could take some time. Lande was clear that modifying guidance includes many layers of review. Please let me know if you have any questions or want to follow up via phone. I plan to share with ADs on our call on Wednesday. FWIW, Oregon and OSU are meeting with Oregon Public Health and Governor Brown’s staff on Wednesday too.” (Source: email)

Tuesday, Sept. 15

• Approximately 3 p.m.: USC players publish their letter to Newsom, which includes this line. “The current reality is that there are too many restrictions imposed by state and local public health officials in California that prevent us from resuming practices and competitions.” The players ask Newsom to “work with us — urgently and purposefully — to find a path forward.” (Source: USC letter)

(The publication of the letter is reported by the L.A. Times, ESPN, Yahoo and other news outlets.)

• The Pac-12 arranges a call between Scott and Newsom. (Source: Pac-12)

Wednesday, Sept. 16

• Approximately 7 a.m. (PT): Big Ten announces its return on Oct. 24

• Morning: Scott speaks with Newsom. (It is their first conversation, according to comments made the following week by USC athletic director Mike Bohn during an interview with reporters from multiple media outlets.)

• Noon: At his news conference, Newsom is asked about the USC letter and the state guidance that prevents the teams from playing. He explains that the state is “committed to working with the Pac-12” and that he had spoken with Scott in the morning.

• 4 p.m.: The Pac-12 releases a statement that indicates California and Oregon officials “will allow for contact practice and return to competition and that there are no state restrictions on our ability to play sports in light of our adherence to strict health and safety protocols and stringent testing requirements.” (Source: Pac-12)

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