Football is returning to Humboldt State University's Redwood Bowl but it's not without controversy and will likely do little to appease Lumberjack fans who frantically fundraised and networked in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the school from axing the sport two years ago.
HSU announced Sept. 30 that it would be "partnering" with San Jose State University to allow its Spartan football team to relocate to Arcata, where players will live, study remotely and practice on campus for the indefinite future. The move comes as the Spartan team was frantically looking to prepare for the Oct. 24 season opener for the Mountain West Conference, which had announced in August it was suspending fall sports in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic before reversing course last month.
But San Jose State University is located in Santa Clara County, which sits in California's restrictive "substantial" risk tier and has yet to OK contact sports. The Spartan team, which has only been holding limited individual and small group workouts but had yet to don pads and have a full-contact practice, submitted a "Return to Football" plan with Santa Clara County Public Health. But the department had yet to approve it by Sept. 30, which apparently prompted the team's move to Arcata.
And that decision to relocate 135 players and staff members from San Jose to HSU's campus indefinitely — it's unclear if or when the team will be able to return to its home stadium and whether it might wind up playing home games in Arcata — seems to have circumvented both the Santa Clara and Humboldt counties' public health departments.
"Public Health was not a part of the decision-making process," said Humboldt County Health Officer Teresa Frankovich. "I have not been contacted by San Jose State University. However, I was contacted [Oct. 1] by the emergency preparedness coordinator for Humboldt State University to let me know about the plan to move forward."
The same day Frankovich was answering questions from the media, Spartan student athletes, coaches and staff were slated to begin arriving on the HSU campus. According to an HSU spokesperson, the plan is for the entire Spartan team to live in a "bubble" in an HSU campus residence hall, "separate from all HSU students," with dining provided to the team in the residence hall "to further limit team interaction with students, faculty and staff." The team will be given access to the Redwood Bowl during certain hours each day and allowed to use the Student Recreation Center outside its current hours of operation, with provisions for the facility to be sanitized before and after the Spartan team's use. (An HSU spokesperson tells the Journal there will be no impact to HSU student athletes using the facility.)
The Spartan team was tested for COVID-19 before departing for Arcata (all tests were negative) and was to be tested again three days after arrival, with follow-up testing conducted weekly thereafter until the Mountain West Conference requires more frequent testing in the run-up to opening day. According to HSU, SJSU is solely responsible for conducting the testing of its players and staff and local testing capacity will not be impacted, though HSU did not respond to an inquiry asking specifically who will be taking testing samples and where they will be processed.
A spokesperson for Santa Clara Public Health told the Journal that while the department understands "the desire of many sports teams to resume practice, just as many businesses are eager to resume" the county remains at "substantial" COVID-19 risk and is evaluating state guidelines and local factors in determining whether certain activities can "safely resume."
"With response to a team holding practice in another county, we are very disappointed to see any team going outside the county to circumvent a process that was put in place to ensure the safety of its players and staff," the spokesperson said.
While noting she was not consulted in the agreement reached between SJSU and HSU, and conceding that the nature of football — which sees teams of 50-plus players hit, tackle and pile atop one another for 60 minutes per game — makes it "higher risk" than other sports, Frankovich said her focus would be on supporting both universities in pulling this off as safely as possible with "minimal impact" locally. To this end, she said Public Health staff will assist with contact investigations in the event any Spartan player or staff member tests positive for the virus in an effort to contain any potential spread as quickly as possible.
The situation underscores both the pressure that major collegiate sports conferences are under to get players back on the field and the complexities of doing so safely, if that's even possible. Consider that while Frankovich and other county officials have repeatedly warned about the dangers of travel outside the local area, the Mountain West Conference includes teams in Idaho, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, as well as California. If the season begins as scheduled, it would necessitate large groups of more than 100 people traveling from state to state to participate.
The conference hopes to ensure the safety of its staff and players with frequent testing, requiring teams and staff to be tested once a week until later this month, when it will require testing three times a week in the lead up to games. To facilitate this level of testing, the conference is allowing teams to use "point of care" COVID-19 tests, which take finger-prick blood samples instead of nasal swabs and return prompt results without having to be sent to a lab for testing. But the FDA only recently approved such tests, and to date their accuracy has varied greatly. The conference will require that any positive point-of-care test be confirmed by the more accurate — but time-consuming — polymerase chain reaction test.
The Spartan team — which went 5-7 last year — has stated it hopes to return to its home campus when Santa Clara County Public Health approves its plan, but it's unclear when or if that will happen. And if it doesn't, it's unclear whether the team will remain in Arcata for the duration of its season, playing its four home games at the Redwood Bowl.
While some have questioned whether the move to welcome the Spartan team to campus is financially driven, as HSU is in the midst of a budget deficit expected to reach $20 million over two years, the university spokesperson said it is not. The costs of service — including labor, facility usage and "institutional resources" — will be covered by SJSU, the spokesperson said, but that's it. The university has declined to offer an exact dollar figure, saying it's unknown as it is unclear how long the Spartan team will remain on campus.
"We are happy to support a CSU family member during a time of need," HSU Athletics Director Jane Teixeira said in a press release. "Their success is our success."
HSU's decision to host the San Jose team comes just a little more than a month after HSU President Tom Jackson Jr. decided to welcome students back to campus residence halls despite Frankovich's warnings it was unsafe to do so.
While it's unclear where, SJSU is slated to play its home opener Oct. 24 against Air Force, which will be traveling with its 50-plus players and roster of coaches and staff from Colorado Springs to wherever the Spartan team calls home.
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.