BERKELEY, Calif. — In any other year, they would be on campus, practicing with their teams, sweating and laughing and bonding with new teammates, preparing for a school year and a season to start.
But this is 2020, so the 200 incoming freshman student-athletes at the University of California, Berkeley, were nothing but a grid of pixelated faces on a screen, boxed in. They were at home, mostly, on beds or couches or at desks or kitchen tables. It was orientation, but no one felt oriented.
All the fall sports seasons had been canceled, with vague hopes of competing in the spring. Winter sports would be delayed at least until Jan. 1, which meant no one was sure when practices would start or what schedules would look like. Spring sports, wiped out at the start of the pandemic, felt like the only certainty in a year in which plans are as ephemeral as summer fog.
Cal’s athletic director, a folksy former Army colonel and West Point engineering instructor named Jim Knowlton, came on for a pep talk. He was at a kitchen table. He had not been in his campus office since mid-March.
“Obviously, we’d love to be doing this in person,” Knowlton told the freshmen. “This is such a fun event when we’re in person. But as you can imagine, we’re going to make it work. And we’re not going to be fazed by a little Covid problem.”
Two-hundred solemn faces stared back.
Knowlton knows that Covid-19, killer of more than 180,000 people in the United States so far, bulldozer to nearly every facet of American society, is anything but little. Colleges and universities, trying to get fall classes going, feel the full brunt of its disruptive force.
People like Knowlton face the most complicated puzzle in sports — the return of college athletics during a pandemic. Shutting down was the easy part. Starting again is a gargantuan mess of tangled parts and moving targets.
At stake is life, death and budgets — all far more important than mere entertainment for the masses.
In the coming weeks and months, The New York Times will be inside Cal athletics, virtually and on campus — in Zoom meetings, budget discussions and team workouts. The goal is to provide an inside-out view of the unprecedented challenges facing one university — but, really, all of them.
The hurdles at Cal are both reflective of other top-level college athletic programs and unique to the Golden Bears. Cal is a member of the Pac-12 Conference, which dominates the college sports scene on the West Coast. Its athletic department is bigger than most: 30 sports, 300 employees, 850 athletes and a $100 million annual budget.
But athletics hardly define Cal, one of the premier public universities in the nation. It is the flagship of the enormous and prestigious University of California system. It is situated in the heart of the Bay Area, where college sports fight for attention. Its athletic department is perpetually in the red.
In other words, Cal represents both success and struggle in college athletics. And the pandemic — along with other major issues of 2020, like fights over social justice — is exposing all of it.
A third-year athletic director is overseeing a crumbling budget that threatens to rearrange the department and its priorities for years.
Coaches are trying to guide athletes through sports that have had seasons cut short or canceled, and are now juggling crushed hopes and uncertain rosters.
Hundreds of athletes are wondering if it’s the right thing to go to campus, to play, to travel, to study.
The ripple effects can be felt on academics, sports medicine, facilities, training, equipment, recruiting, fund-raising and alumni relations. They have dealt an unmeasurable blow to momentum and mental health.
Things were humming for Cal in March. Postseasons were heating up. The men’s basketball team had beaten rival Stanford in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament. The gymnastics teams were headed to conference meets, and the powerful men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams were days away from nationals. Spring sports, like baseball, softball, rowing and track and field, were underway.
Suddenly everything stopped. College sports were quarantined like the rest of us.
There was hope and expectation that normalcy would return relatively intact in the fall. Pessimism is not a welcome trait in sports. Pro sports would figure it out over the summer. The virus would fade.
But it has not. And college campuses are proving to be the trickiest part of the sports equation.
No way to prevent outbreaks among tens of thousands of college students on hundreds of campuses nationwide. No way to separate campuses from their communities. No way to separate student-athletes from regular students. No way to create impenetrable bubbles for competition.
It is the real world, not Disney World.
By June, officials at Cal recognized anything close to normal in the fall was unlikely. Still, plans were made, unmade, remade, made again. The alternative was to do nothing.
“There were times we were like: ‘Why are we doing this? This isn’t going to happen,’” Cal’s associate athletic director for facilities, Josh Hummel, said.
What if there were no fall sports? What if all the sports were played in the spring? What if some sports played but others did not? What if there was football with no fans? Some fans? All fans? What would it all mean for health, budgets, facilities, eligibility, gender equity?
“Every decision has multiple second- and third-order effects,” Knowlton said in a Zoom interview on July 27.
By then, reality was biting. Colleges were having Covid-19 outbreaks, some tied to summer football workouts. In early July, Cal had an outbreak linked to off-campus fraternity parties. A reckoning slow-rolled through college sports, and murmurs became debates: Fall seasons might not happen at all.
On July 8, the Ivy League canceled fall sports. Two days later, the Pac-12 announced that most fall sports, including football, would play only conference games, beginning in late September — a reduced schedule to buy time while managing consistency in health protocols.
On Aug. 4, Knowlton met with a few dozen alumni on Zoom. Someone asked the likelihood of a football season, from 1 to 10.
“A good seven,” Knowlton said. “And you’re the first person to ask that in the last eight minutes.”
A week later, the Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences canceled their fall seasons. There would be no sports until Jan. 1, at least, which nudged back the start of winter sports seasons, too.
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The suspended season provided an unexpected exhale. The target for restarting the games had gone to January, from September. But that created a whole new set of issues.
The Semester Begins
Last Wednesday was the first day of classes at Cal. With virtual learning, campus was virtually empty. Normally there are about 9,000 students living on campus; now there are about 2,000. Lecture halls were shuttered. There was none of the usual car and foot traffic on Telegraph Avenue.
Knowlton was on campus for the first time since March. His office was a time capsule. The printer held something he forgot to grab on his way out the door to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen Jim since March 16,” Hummel said as the two chatted inside Memorial Stadium, the on-campus home to the Cal football team and, for the foreseeable future, 63,000 empty seats.
“Oh, I’ve seen him a lot,” said Knowlton, who spends 10 hours a day or more in Zoom meetings, many of them with staff.
Last Saturday was supposed to be the first football game, at Nevada-Las Vegas. But once the fall seasons were canceled, and with all classes online, most athletes either headed home or stayed home.
As the semester began, only about 150 of Cal’s 850 athletes were in Berkeley, including a few dozen football players. They attend voluntary individual workouts, conducted by Cal’s training staff. Because fall is now like an off-season for all sports, coaches have little contact with athletes. Some coaches have not been on campus in months, either.
Berkeley has had stricter health orders than most places — including the cities of many conference rivals, where college life feels more normal and where sports teams may get a competitive advantage.
Then again, they might also get outbreaks of the virus. Last Wednesday, Southern Cal, a Pac-12 rival, shut down football and water polo workouts because of a spate of positive coronavirus tests.
At Cal, most indoor spaces — locker rooms, offices, gyms — are temporarily off-limits. To make do, Cal strength coaches moved 80,000 pounds of weights onto a football practice field next to the stadium, and a smaller amount into baseball batting cages across campus.
Then they created work stations divided for social distancing — no more than 12 at one end of the football field, and 12 more at the other, to adhere to city mandates.
Masks were worn by everyone. No-touch water-bottle filling stations were jury-rigged. When the athletes finished their workouts, they found two bags waiting: one with clean clothes, one with a meal. The equipment was disinfected by workers carrying Ghostbusters-style backpacks with sprayers before the next group arrived.
It was not until the end of August that the city health department lifted a ban on outdoor pools. Cal has two, for esteemed swimming and water polo teams that have been left dry for months.
Every logistical challenge is a math word problem. When the two outdoor pools open, swimming lanes must be eight feet apart with no more than 20 people at the pool at any time. For dry workouts, the limit is 12. But some swimmers want to train twice a day, and each one has a different class schedule. One pool will also be open to other students for recreational use.
When 60 swimmers return to campus, how do you devise the schedule?
“You wait until the last possible minute to make every decision,” Hummel said, summing up the uncertainty. “Which has been our plan all along.”
Once the fall season was canceled — “postponed,” Knowlton corrected, whenever the word was used — the focus turned to winter sports: basketball, swimming, gymnastics and indoor track among them. And football.
With a possible Jan. 1 start, will basketball games originally planned for November and December be rescheduled? When can practices start? Is there room for all 30 sports to practice and compete simultaneously in the spring? And what if school remains online?
So many questions. So few answers.
“I’ve looked in the A.D. handbook, read it a few times, and haven’t found them anywhere,” he said.
Knowlton was energized by his first face-to-face greetings in months. He shouted and waved to athletes, trainers and maintenance workers. Most interactions ended the same way: Go Bears!
Knowlton spends most days on Zoom. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays start with all Pac-12 athletic directors and conference officials. Tuesdays and Thursdays begin with the university’s chancellor, Carol Christ, and her cabinet.
There are meetings with head coaches, teams, department heads. There are social justice meetings, parent meetings, online fan fests. There was the opening-week Big C Kickoff, where Knowlton gave a pep talk and led an online trivia game with about 700 athletes.
On the opening night of classes, he had Zoom meetings with alumni groups in Orange County and in San Diego. He meets with donors, sometimes individually.
“When you get a crowd of big donors, they ask the hard questions,” Knowlton said. “Last night, a guy said, ‘Jim, I’ll give, but only if you give me good news.’”
Always, they ask: Will there be a football season?
It was the first day of fall classes. Knowlton stood in a portal of an empty football stadium, wearing a mask.
“I think we’ll definitely have some type of season in the spring,” he said.
It was as much of a commitment as anyone could make.
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