If stepping into a new job is like stepping into a rocking boat, newly-minted Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff has set sail in a maelstrom. As the gray-haired former president of sports and entertainment at MGM Sports International stepped up to the microphone July 27, change was in the wind.
That same morning, Oklahoma and Texas had formally launched their campaign to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, possibly setting off earth-shattering conference realignment. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 is preparing for another year of sports during the pandemic.
Pac more than 12?
Despite the imminent threat of major conference realignment, Kliavkoff and his fellow Pac-12 officials remained steadfast on the subject. Little was said about which schools could potentially join the conference or what role the Pac-12 would want to play in such an event.
“We don’t think there’s any risk in staying at 12 teams,” Kliavkoff pointed out.
His sentiment was shared by University of Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, who added that the conference had a “strong 12.”
While conference officials remained tight-lipped on specific changes, Kliavkoff stated the Pac-12 would “not negotiate in the media.” Players and coaches, including UCLA head coach Chip Kelly, could do little more than speculate.
Still, there were hints of more action behind the scenes. In an interview with The New York Times, Kliavkoff stated that “dozens” of schools had inquired about joining the Pac-12. During media day, Kliavkoff emphasized that though there was a “high bar to entry,” prerequisites for new members were yet to be defined.
When asked about a time frame, Kliavkoff left the door open.
“I did not say that expansion is not a priority,” he said. “It is a priority to consider all of the alternatives that have been presented to us.”
The 2020 football season was defined by COVID-19, and it’s difficult to believe that this year’s campaign will go unaffected.
The Pac-12 will again provide COVID-19 testing to athletes who are unvaccinated or are symptomatic. The conference is also working with schools to provide educational resources to athletes in the hopes of encouraging vaccination, a point that student-athletes and coaches echoed.
Kliavkoff noted that nine of the Pac-12 schools already had vaccine mandates in place and that four teams already have vaccination rates above 90%.
“Everyone has to be vaccinated to be on campus, so I believe our team is 100% vaccinated,” said Cal quarterback Chase Garbers. “You have to do your part as a society, as a citizen — and that’s all I have to say about that.”
Cal linebacker Kuony Deng later clarified that the team was close to being fully vaccinated, rather than entirely vaccinated.
There will not, however, be a vaccine mandate for the season. This decision was most notably exemplified by Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich, who spoke to reporters by video after his “decision not to receive a vaccination”
“The reasons for my individual choice will remain private,” Rolovich said, though he endorsed taking steps to prevent COVID-19. “As I go forward, I plan on adhering to all policies that are implemented for the unvaccinated at the state, local, campus, conference level. I’m not against vaccinations. I wholeheartedly support those who choose to be vaccinated.”
Kliavkoff and the conference supported Rolovich’s privacy, adding that there would be no vaccine mandate and that individual reasons were not the Pac-12’s “business,” even as the conference mandated vaccines to attend media day.
The strongest endorsement of vaccinations ultimately came from Stanford head coach David Shaw, who pointed out that players who chose to be unvaccinated had to adhere to rules that kept them and their teammates safe.
“It’s better and safer for all of us if everybody is vaccinated,” Shaw said, though he added he would not force anyone to receive a vaccine. “There are going to be different rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. If we all are on the same page, then I believe we’ll have a great result.
Discussions ranged beyond Pac-12 expansion and COVID-19. Officials voiced support for Pac-12 student-athletes and alumni at the Olympics and presented new resources from both individual schools and the conference itself for athletes monetizing their name, image and likeness rights — including a “licensing program” from the Pac-12 networks.