Fridays typically bring a sense of joy to the general public. It's the day that signifies the work week is over and the weekend's activities are ready to commence. But if you're a Utah football fan, Friday's have done nothing more than add to the despair already flooding everyone's lives due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The past two Fridays have been when the Utes have canceled their games scheduled for Saturday. And while each decision was the correct one, it doesn't sting any less knowing the Utes can't suit up.
After already having delved into who's responsible for the Utah's two failed contests—which is up for interpretation—the question now needs to be asked; should Utah continue with the season?
“I think it’s something that we’re going to try to give these young men every opportunity we can to compete for this university, for this state, all the while keeping their safety is what we’ve done, clearly. I don’t foresee us doing that,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said.
Obviously the players, coaches and staff want to play. If they didn't, they wouldn't be going through all of this week in and week out and would've shut down a while ago. Most of the fans want to see the Utes play, and for good reason. We are living in a world full of darkness and the idea of seeing the Utes on the football field is a slight bright light at the end of the tunnel.
Forgetting for a second what the players, coaches, staff and fans want, is it safe to continue to practice and attempt to play amidst this pandemic?
Utah's next game is against Pac-12 south division favorite USC, which by the time it rolls into town next Saturday will already have two games under their belt. Also, the Trojans will have had multiple weeks of practices with their entire team.
"I still think there's a lot to play for," Harlan said. "There's an SC team coming in next week that we're going to do everything we can to turn this thing around (to be able to play) and then we got games after that. We don't know how many games are gonna be played in our conference—we're all rooting for everybody to play every week, believe me. So I still believe as I sit here today there's a lot to play for. We've got to get this virus out of our program to be able to participate."
With the Utes, on the other hand, it's a complete mystery how many players will be available and which ones will be healthy. Will the coaching staff let players see the field against the Trojans regardless of how much they've practiced the past two weeks? Nobody knows but either way, that doesn't sound safe—which is something Harlan and head coach Kyle Whittingham have preached throughout this whole process.
"We went into this week knowing it was a day-to-day situation," Whittingham said following the cancelation of the game against UCLA . "We have been doing everything we can under the circumstances to prepare for the game and follow all guidelines and protocols. As is always the case, the health and safety of our student-athletes come first."
Putting players who may not be prepared against a talented and physical football team such as USC may not actually be in the best interests of the players. And if the Utes are forced to cancel the game against the Trojans, that means that half of the season has come and gone with the team still on the sidelines.
So what's the point of playing the final three games?
Utah upped its testing regimen when the players returned to practice this past Monday. Instead of doing the weekly PCR test that is required by the Pac-12, the Utes underwent daily PCR COVID-19 testing, as well as the daily antigen testing. The results was a positive test on Monday and then three consecutive days of negative tests, setting the stage for Saturday's game.
But a player on the travel squad tested positive on Friday, thus ending any hopes of playing. Utah currently has 17 members of the program with positive tests, and now 11 more out due to quarantine and contact tracing.
“I think what we’ve learned in these last two weeks is there’s no margin of error at all,” Harlan said. “We don’t have a bubble with our student-athletes here at the University of Utah, and I think we just got swept into what is happening here in the county and the state as much as we’ve tried since March to mitigate, and we really have until last week, amazingly so.”
Despite the struggles Utah has faced, Harlan believes there is no reason to cancel the season. The program has overcome so many obstacles that he believes canceling the remainder of the year would be detrimental to them.
“If we come to a place where they say we just can’t do this anymore, then we’ll have to react to that, but I don’t foresee that,” he said. “I think it’s going to continue to be a day-by-day situation, and I’m sure our league will gather again Monday morning as we always do as athletic directors and assess where we’re at. Gosh, my hope is that we keep pushing forward.”
It's anyone's guess as to what will happen next, or what is the right move to make? Either way, the health and safety of the players have to be first and foremost. Harlan and Whittingham have already said so and have done everything up to this point in supporting those words.
But do they take the ultimate step or not?
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