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One crime Texas isn’t so tuff on

And that’s sexual assault, in the category of crimes Deshaun Watson has been accused of.

As the Houston Police Department investigates at least one criminal complaint against Deshaun Watson, a review of the allegations made in civil court against the Texans quarterback show officials could be limited to pursuing misdemeanor charges for all but a few serious accusations.

More than half of the 23 women who sued Watson say he made sexual contact without their consent. In Texas, that’s a misdemeanor in criminal court, on par with burglary of a vehicle or property theft between $750 and $2,500.

Three plaintiffs allege that Watson either forced or coerced fellatio — a second degree felony punishable by two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

[…]

Texas lags behind some states in punishing offenders in cases of sexual assault that don’t rise to the level of rape. The Houston Chronicle analyzed a database of sex crimes laws across all 50 states compiled by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. It found that unwanted sexual contact described in more than half the lawsuits — where there is no penetration involved — is a felony in a dozen of them, but not in Texas.

Experts say classifying what Watson is accused of doing as misdemeanor indecent assault minimizes the seriousness of such crimes and discourages victims from coming forward.

“The gravity of indecent assault or indecent acts can vary so substantially,” said Geoffrey S. Corn, South Texas College of Law Houston’s Gary A. Kuiper Distinguished Professor of National Security Law. “Compelling someone to touch your genitals or touching them with your genitals is a much more aggravated crime” than grabbing someone’s buttocks.

[…]

Other states impose harsher punishments than Texas. In Utah, for example, forcible sex abuse — touching a person’s anus, buttock, pubic area or any part of someone’s genitals, or touches a female’s breasts — is a second-degree felony punishable by one to 15 years in prison.

Alaska classifies non-consensual sexual contact as sexual assault in the second degree, a class B felony. It’s punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

But in Texas, the same crime is only a class A misdemeanor. At most, a person found guilty of indecent assault would receive a year in jail and be fined $4,000.

Corn said each offense could be punished separately. But still, “treating it conclusively as a misdemeanor is troubling,” Corn said.

I should note that the penalties cited in this story are the maximum for the given crime. Most likely, an offender who was convicted or accepted a plea for them would get a lesser sentence. I’ve learned enough over the years to be very skeptical of aggressive punishments for most crimes, as they seldom have any positive effect on the frequency with which those crimes are committed, and of course because of the great racial disparities in our criminal justice system. That doesn’t mean Texas has the right idea with its punishments for these non-rape sex crimes. If anything, it tells us more about the state’s attitude towards this kind of crime. (*) There are a lot of reasons why people (mostly but not entirely women) are reluctant to come forward when they are victimized in this fashion, but the prospect of seeing their attacker get off with a light sentence even in the best case scenario is surely one of them.

(*) – Compare, for example, to the multi-year prison sentence Crystal Mason got for voting when she wasn’t eligible. If her conviction is upheld by the Court of Criminal Appeals, she would serve more time than Deshaun Watson would if he were convicted under most of the charges levied against him.

First Watson defense briefs filed

Just keeping an eye on developments.

Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson’s legal team on Monday filed a general denial of the 22 allegations of sexual assault and harassment, including their own claims that some of the massage therapists asked the football player if they could give him additional sessions.

The denial comes days after Watson’s attorney Rusty Hardin successfully pushed for the names of the women to become public, which he said would allow him to investigate and respond to the lawsuits. The Houston Chronicle does not typically identify victims of alleged sexual assault or harassment.

[…]

Hardin, in his response to the lawsuits, said that several of the women bragged about massaging Watson or praised him after their sessions. Others offered to work with him again, and one said she was attracted to Watson and wanted to go on dates with him, the attorney said.

Several of the women failed to disclose they had more sessions than what they said in their lawsuits, and some of them told others that they wanted to get money out of Watson, according to the filing.

Many of the women have also deleted or altered their social media accounts, where some evidence might have been found, Hardin said.

See here for the previous update. As was the case with the lawsuits themselves, do not rush to judgment about anything in the defense filings. More information will come out as the plaintiffs (and perhaps the prosecution) gets a chance to respond. Part of the job of the defense is to cast doubt on the accusers, and that is going to feel weird and perhaps aggressive. It’s not going to get any less uncomfortable from here. Sean Pendergast, who quotes from the defense brief and breaks down the different arguments being made, has more.

Watson cases consolidated

All in one court now, for your convenience.

All 22 sexual assault and harassment lawsuits against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson have been consolidated to one Harris County court.

Both legal parties agreed on Friday that State District Judge Rabeea Sultan Collier should handle the cases until the time of trial. Any trial would then be returned to the originally assigned courtroom.

Court documents show that the cases have been consolidated. Collier said Friday she expected a panel of judges to meet and officially OK the agreement at an unspecified date.

The decision is primarily a matter of convenience for the judges, Watson’s attorneys and the lawyers of the 22 women bringing litigation. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, and Tony Buzbee, representing the women, said that it would be easier to exchange evidence in one courtroom instead of several.

See here for the previous update. I don’t need to be a lawyer to know that this is a normal thing, consolidating lawsuits like this. As a blogger who follows various legal cases, I drive myself crazy sometimes trying to tell from a bland news story whether a particular court action has to do with this lawsuit or that one or the other one over there. I appreciate the simplification.

In semi-related Watson news, don’t do this.

Football writer Aaron Wilson is no longer with the Houston Chronicle after he went on a Boston sports radio show and compared the women suing Deshaun Watson to terrorists, multiple sources told Defector on Friday.

The radio appearance was on The Greg Hill Show on WEEI on March 19. During the appearance, Wilson called the lawsuits “a money grab” and “ambulance chasing.” At one point during the conversation, when talking about the Watson case, he said, “In his case, you know, it’s kind of you don’t negotiate with terrorists. People are demanding money, they’re asking for money. It kept escalating, it kept going up and up and up. You’re talking about more and more funds, I’m not going to say how much it got to, but my understanding is, you know, that there was an admission that, it was, you know, something, you know just that this was, you know, just a money grab.”

Wilson has since issued an apology, but yeah. You can’t, and you shouldn’t, come back from that. We all have our thoughts and often conflicting feelings about the accusations against Deshaun Watson, but outside of the accusers and Watson themselves, no one knows anything. We should take the accusers seriously, and we should give Watson the chance to defend himself, and we should not jump to dumb and ill-informed conclusions.

UPDATE: The remaining cases against Watson have been refiled to include the plaintiffs’ names, minus one who chose to drop out.

NCAA warns Texas about anti-transgender bills

It’s not just the voter suppression bills that will do great harm to the state of Texas and its people if the Republicans ram them through.

Amid all the talk of boycotts and corporate criticism of election bills going through the Texas Legislature, major resistance is also shaping up to another top priority of the Republican state lawmakers.

With the Texas Senate cued up to debate a bill this week that would ban transgender girls from competing in girls’ interscholastic sports, the NCAA recently issued a stern warning that they are watching the legislation.

“The NCAA continues to closely monitor state bills that impact transgender student-athlete participation,” NCAA officials said in a statement to Hearst Newspapers. “The NCAA believes in fair and respectful student-athlete participation at all levels of sport. The association’s transgender student-athlete participation policy and other diversity policies are designed to facilitate and support inclusion.”

The NCAA policies allow transgender athletes to participate without limitations.

It is very similar to the statements the NCAA put out just before Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a transgender bill similar to the one Texas is considering and one that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem backed away from while warning of an unwinnable showdown with the college sports association.

SB 29, sponsored by Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry would ban a student from participating in a sport “opposite to the student’s biological sex as determined at the student’s birth…”

[…]

Critics of the Texas legislation and others like it say it’s all part of a wave of bills in statehouses around the nation that are not only discriminatory against transgender children, but dangerous to them.

“This is a moment of national crisis where the rights and the very existence of transgender young people are under attack,” said Alphonso David, president of Human Rights Council, a national group that fights violence, discrimination and fear of LGBTQ people. “Like the bathroom bills and the bills targeting marriage equality before them, these bills are nothing more than a coordinated effort by anti-LGBTQ extremists spreading fear and misinformation about transgender people in order to score cheap political points.”

[…]

The NCAA has been a notable voice against anti-transgender legislation. In 2017, it pulled major sporting events out of North Carolina because of that state passing a version of the bathroom bill. Eventually, North Carolina lawmakers amended the legislation to end the boycott.

The NCAA has major financial commitments in Texas. The men’s basketball Final Four is scheduled to be in Houston in 2023 and then in San Antonio again in 2025. Dallas hosts the women’s Final Four in 2023, and the College Football Championship is set for Houston in 2024.

In 2017, studies suggested Texas could lose nearly $250 million if the Final Four was taken away then. With three Final Fours and the football championships, Texas would be looking at more than $1 billion in economic impact.

“The NCAA believes diversity and inclusion improve the learning environment and it encourages its member colleges and universities to support the well-being of all student-athletes,” the NCAA said in its recent statement to Hearst Newspapers about Texas’ transgender legislation.

That was an early story. The Trib filed a little later, and the NCAA was a bit more specific this time.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Board of Governors said it will only hold college championships in states where transgender student-athletes can participate without discrimination. The Monday warning sets the stage for a political fight with multiple states, including Texas, that are considering bills in their legislatures that would require students to play sports with only teammates who align with their biological sex.

“Inclusion and fairness can coexist for all student-athletes, including transgender athletes, at all levels of sport,” the NCAA statement said. “Our clear expectation as the Association’s top governing body is that all student-athletes will be treated with dignity and respect. We are committed to ensuring that NCAA championships are open for all who earn the right to compete in them.”

See here for the preview. I for one would very much like these sporting events to be in our cities in those years. But if the Lege follows through on these terrible, harmful bills then the NCAA absolutely should follow through and pull them all until such time as these bills are repealed.

While the legislation has seen some traction in the upper chamber, it’s unclear whether there will be support in the House, where similar bills have yet to get assigned a committee hearing.

In the past, Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has pushed back against bills that would weaken protections for LGBTQ people. After the Senate passed a bill in 2019 that removed nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation, the House State Affairs Committee, which Phelan chaired, had the language reinstated.

Phelan said in an interview at the time that he was “done talking about bashing on the gay community.”

“It’s completely unacceptable,” he said. “This is 2019.”

I would have thought we’d learned this lesson in 2017, but apparently some lessons need to be learned the hard way. We still have a chance to escape that fate, but if we don’t it’s 100% on the Republicans. I hope Dade Phelan meant what he said, but it remains to be seen. To learn more and hear from the advocates of the transgender children who are being targeted by our Legislature, you can follow Rebecca Marques, Jessica Shortall, Equality Texas (the woman you see testifying in that video is my friend Mandy Giles), Kimberly Shappley, and Amber Briggle on Twitter. USA Today, the Texas Signal, and Mother Jones have more.

Watson seeks names of accusers

This was going to happen sooner or later.

Attorneys for Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson on Thursday urged several state courts to require the disclosure of the names of the women accusing him of sexual assault and harassment — a move one legal expert called an intimidation tactic.

In a new court filing, defense lawyer Rusty Hardin lambasted the women’s attorney, Tony Buzbee, for holding a “trial by press conference” and making it difficult for Watson to respond to the 22 separate accusations without knowing who filed suit. The anonymous women, most of whom are massage therapists, allege that Watson assaulted or harassed them during sessions in 2020 and 2021 in Texas, California, Georgia or Arizona.

Hardin filed multiple requests Thursday but said he intended to file them in all of the women’s cases.

“Through the spectacle of the last few weeks, Mr. Watson has been unable to responsibly defend himself in the face of overwhelming national media coverage,” Hardin said in the filing for a special exception to the original petition. “Mr. Watson’s counsel cannot in good conscience publicly respond to the specific allegations being made because any response would be based on dangerous speculation about the identity of the accusers.”

[…]

The women are all officially listed as “Jane Doe” in court documents. Two Texas Rules of Civil Procedure prevent plaintiffs from filing civil claims using pseudonyms, Hardin said. One rule requires plaintiffs to state their name if it is known, and the other requires giving the defense fair notice of the claims involved. An exception is made for minors in sex assault cases.

A judge could potentially permit the defense to learn the identities of the plaintiffs but order the names not be released publicly, University of Houston law professor Meredith Duncan said.

Tahira Khan Merritt, a Texas attorney who litigates civil sex assault cases in state and federal court, said judges have discretion as to whether they would allow the case to proceed under a pseudonym. Prohibiting a pseudonym would merely be an intimidation tactic so early in a case, she said.

“The use of pseudonyms is very common across the United States,” Merritt said. “The only reason they would push it is to shut the victim up and discourage others from coming forward.”

Buzbee previously told Hardin he could provide the names if they used a confidentiality order, Hardin said.

As we know, two accusers have come forward publicly, but the others have not. At the court hearings today, they got some of what they wanted.

Two Harris County judges ordered in separate hearings on Friday that Tony Buzbee refile sexual assault and harassment cases against quarterback Deshaun Watson with the names of the accusers made public.

State district Judge Dedra Davis granted defense attorney Rusty Hardin’s request and asked that Buzbee refile a case in her court and disclose one of the women’s names within two days. Buzbee had suggested a private disclosure to Hardin for the women, who were initially all listed as “Jane Doe.”

A second judge, Rabeea Sultan Collier, made the same determination in the cases of three other women late Friday morning. Ten other women agreed to allow Buzbee to release their identities, and the woman in Davis’ court was “emboldened” and told Buzbee not to fight the judge’s decision, he said.

[…]

Hardin told Collier that making names public, while a concern for women’s safety, is also necessary for the defense. Since Solis and one other woman identified themselves during a Tuesday news conference, his team has received information about them from outside parties, he said.

Davis agreed that both parties needed fair treatment and that the women needed to be protected. But she agreed with Hardin that his use of publicizing the case in the media hurt his arguments.

“Everything’s been thrown into the spotlight,” she said. “I understand that you said in private you will allow the accuser to be known but it’s been very public.”

Collier heard arguments about 12 cases, nine of which were moot since the women agreed to have their names released. Solis’ case, the first to be filed, landed in her court, which means it is customary that any consolidation of cases would also move to her courtroom.

Hardin and Buzbee also agreed on a consolidation agreement Friday. All 22 women’s cases will proceed in Collier’s court before trial, but would move back to their original courts for a trial.

OK then. There are still hearings to be had for the remaining women, so we’ll see how that goes. We also now have a preview of the defense.

Deshaun Watson’s attorneys on Friday issued their first extensive defense of the star quarterback, alleging that every sexual act he partook in was consensual.

Rusty Hardin and a team of four women spoke from the Hilton Americas hotel downtown, issuing statements of support to the media and apologizing for remaining quiet as Watson was hit with 22 separate lawsuits of sexual assault and harassment. But the veteran, high-profile defense attorney also prodded reporters to look more closely at the behavior of the women’s lawyer, Tony Buzbee, who he said withheld the names of the anonymous plaintiffs until it was vital that they be made public through an emergency hearing.

[…]

Watson has been receiving two to three massages a week for four years, totaling sometimes to 150 a year, Hardin said. Most of the allegations seem to stem from 2020 and 2021 because the massage industry has changed over the course of the pandemic with the closure of spas and tendency of massage therapists to turn to Instagram for marketing, he said.

Watson, 25, largely operates from Instagram, and he doesn’t have a large team of massage therapists at his disposal through the Texans as many would believe, his attorneys said.

The female attorneys at the press conference clarified that they were not the only people from Hardin’s office on the lawsuits and did not appear to speak for appearances. They were only there because they wholeheartedly believe Watson, they said.

Attorney Leticia Quinones, a sexual assault survivor herself, said that she and other women on the team personally met with Watson and were convinced of his innocence. She urged the public to look at Watson’s “credit history” of good deeds in the community and success in overcoming a rough childhood.

She said Watson has a target on his back after signing a $160 million contract. He’s separately trying to leave the Texans.

“This 25 year old man was thrown in the depths of something he wasn’t accustomed to – money fam and stardom,” Quinones said.

Quinones added however, “I don’t discount anything that a young woman believes happens to her,” and after taking questions, Hardin agreed that “good guys” are capable of doing bad things.

Hardin said he simply wants to move the needle back to the middle in terms of public discourse following weeks of attacks from Buzbee’s team.

I’ve tried not to jump to any conclusions as the plaintiffs have made their accusations, and I’m going to continue to try to stay neutral as the defense begins to speak. There is sure to be a lot more said on all of this. Sean Pendergast has more.

A Watson accuser has come forward

Listen to what she says.

The first of 22 women to file a sexual assault and harassment lawsuit against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson spoke out on Tuesday, coming forward publicly in response to the defense team’s questions over the accusers’ identities.

At a news conference in attorney Tony Buzbee’s downtown high rise office, licensed massage therapist Ashley Solis shared her experience as a woman who is now struggling in her profession in the aftermath of the alleged assault. Buzbee then distributed pages of documents showing messages that he claims Watson sent to some of his clients, and his associates named a second woman who filed one of the lawsuits.

Solis said she now has difficulty touching patients without shaking, and on several occasions she has had to end sessions early.

“We were all deceived into thinking that Deshaun Watson was a great guy,” Solis said. “Unfortunately we know that good guys can do terrible things.”

Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, released a lengthy statement containing a series of email exchanges allegedly between Buzbee’s camp and a Watson representative, claiming Buzbee sought $100,000 to settle Solis’ allegations just one month before he filed her suit.

“Mr. Buzbee himself repeatedly claimed that the litigation he filed on behalf of other Jane Does ‘isn’t about money,’” Hardin said. “In fact, according to the documentation below, Mr. Buzbee sought $100,000 in hush money.”

Separately, he said Buzbee has not turned over any of the documents he shared with the media. Hardin has previously criticized Buzbee for failing to give him the names of his clients, which he says prevents him from investigating the claims.

See here for the previous update. I would much rather live in a world where no one ever had any reason to accuse Deshaun Watson – or anyone else, for that matter – of any kind of inappropriate sexual behavior. One is allowed to have complicated feelings about all of this. I’m still wrestling with a lot of contradictory emotions and reactions, and I’m a pretty lukewarm Texans fan. While Deshaun Watson and Rusty Hardin have the right to defend his actions and his reputation, Ashley Solis deserves to be treated with respect. She’s already being attacked by trolls, which is a great illustration of why very few women make this kind of accusation lightly, and why most of these plaintiffs have remained nameless so far. Watson and Hardin will get their chance to question her account and her veracity, and we will get to make up our own minds about it, hopefully once all the evidence is in. Let’s all please try not to be jackasses about this.

I mention Watson and Hardin defending Watson’s reputation because that is very much at issue here.

Nike has suspended its business relationship with Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is facing 22 civil lawsuits that allege sexual assault and harassment.

“We are deeply concerned by the disturbing allegations and have suspended Deshaun Watson,” Nike said in a statement e-mailed to the Chronicle. “We will continue to closely monitor the situation.”

Beats by Dre also has terminated its relationship with Deshaun Watson, according to sources not authorized to speak publicly. Watson had a business relationship with Beats by Dre since he was drafted in the first round in 2017 out of Clemson.

Also, Reliant Energy has dropped its relationship with Watson as a brand ambassador is over.

“Reliant is aware of pending civil lawsuits and a criminal investigation involving Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans quarterback,” Reliant said in an email. “Our relationship with Watson as a brand ambassador was scheduled to end this spring prior to these allegations, and there are no plans for future engagements or contracts with him. We take accusations of this nature very seriously. With respect to the legal process, we do not have any further comment on this matter.”

Not hard to understand why these companies took this action. The stakes overall are a lot higher than endorsement deals, but this is a significant development. Sean Pendergast has more.

Why lawsuits?

If you’ve wondered why the women who have accused Deshaun Watson of sexual harassment and assault have filed lawsuits against him instead of police reports, this Chron story offers some reasons.

The 22 women suing Deshaun Watson for allegedly sexually assaulting and harassing them have been criticized for not first taking their allegations to police.

But experts say a civil suit is often a sexual assault victim’s best shot at justice.

“In a civil case, you can expect a broader range of accountability,” said Elizabeth Boyce, general counsel and director of policy and advocacy for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. “You might settle before trial and that might include a public acknowledgment and apology.”

[…]

But experts said there are myriad reasons why a victim would choose to file a case in civil court instead of a criminal complaint — including compensation to pay for any emotional and medical care needed after an assault.

“Victims of sexual assault had something stolen from them,” said Noblet Davidson, founder and clinical director of enCOURAGE Trauma Center in Houston. “They need to be compensated. If you get in a car accident, you get compensated.”

The fear of being outed, for example, can deter a victim from filing a police report, Boyce said — especially when the alleged perpetrator is famous.

“Confidentiality and privacy is always at the heart of these cases,” Boyce said. “Honestly, it’s a fear of any victim of sexual assault that this is going to result in some sort of public condemnation or harassment.”

The nation has seen it play out over and over again, Boyce said.

When California professor Christine Blasey Ford testified before Congress, alleging that now-Supreme court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in high school, she received death threats. She and her family had to move multiple times and had to pay for a private security detail.

[…]

For some victims, taking their assault to police can seem hopeless.

Not only are they retraumatized each time they have to describe their assault, Boyce said, but it can also seem as if they are not in control of the outcomes.

“In criminal cases, the state doesn’t represent the victims, they represent the state and they control every aspect of the case,” Boyce said. “And so often (the cases) are refused for prosecution for a variety of reasons — if they think they can’t win or they think there’s too much political pressure.”

The criminal investigation process also is intrusive and time-consuming, with court hearings, follow-ups with police and medical appointments, said Olivia Rivers, executive director of the Houston-area advocacy nonprofit Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Officers may show up at the victim’s house or workplace. Family and friends — who the victim may not want to tell about the assault — may be interviewed to corroborate the report.

“A sexual assault exam can take hours,” she said. “How do you explain to your family why you were at a hospital for that long? Or how do you explain to your employer why you had to miss so much work for court?”

Additionally, the burden of proof also is lower in a civil court than in a criminal prosecution. Civilly, the victims only have to show a preponderance of evidence, but in criminal cases, authorities have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the assault happened.

Therefore, it can easier for victims to get some form of justice in a civil court, whether it be a public apology or a monetary award for pain and suffering — especially when there isn’t enough physical evidence to criminally convict a perpetrator.

“Sexual violence … isn’t taken seriously by society,” Rivers said. “This about having their voices heard.”

Sometimes, victims might seek both criminal prosecution and civil damages.

At least one alleged victim has done exactly that, and others may follow. In the meantime, lawsuit #22 is on the books. We won’t know how successful this approach is until we have some resolutions in these cases, but the reason why the lawsuits were filed should be clear.

HPD now investigating Deshaun Watson

Someone filed a report.

Already facing a rash of civil lawsuits, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson now has been named in a criminal complaint, according to the Houston Police Department.

HPD confirmed it “is now conducting an investigation and will not comment further during the investigative process.”

The probe comes as Texans quarterback faces 21 civil lawsuits from massage therapists or wellness professionals who allege he sexually assaulted or harassed them at various points during massage sessions in 2020 or 2021.

Watson and his attorney, Rusty Hardin, have denied the claims

Hardin, who has publicly chastised Watson’s accusers for not disclosing their names in the litigation, said his team will cooperate with police.

“We welcome this long overdue development,” Hardin said of the investigation. “Now we will learn the identity of at least one accuser.”

Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, who is representing the alleged victims in the civil lawsuits, pushed back against the criticism of the alleged victims, saying they are courageous in coming forward.

“It takes great strength to do what these women are doing,” he said. “We are not only dealing with the future of a star quarterback, we are dealing with the physical health, mental health, safety, and well-being of courageous people who had the fortitude to step forward, although powerless, against the powerful.”

On Friday, Buzbee said that he was aware of the criminal complaint filed Friday morning.

“I will also confirm that other criminal complaints will follow, as previously indicated, in Houston and in other jurisdictions and with other agencies,” he said.

That’s more direct than Buzbee’s previous word salad on the topic. It seems likely we were always headed in this direction, but the story so far has proceeded in an unusual manner, so who really knows. Nothing to do but wait and see what if anything comes of this, and how many other reports get filed.

Will there be any criminal complaints filed against Deshaun Watson?

Maybe? It all depends on what Tony Buzbee means, and Lord only knows about that.

In his latest Instagram post about the sexual assault allegations against Deshaun Watson, Houston attorney Tony Buzbee said Tuesday that he plans to take evidence of the assaults to an investigating agency outside the Houston Police Department.

Buzbee has filed 19 lawsuits on behalf of women who said Watson sexually assaulted or harassed them during massage sessions in 2020 and 2021.

In Buzbee’s post, published around 9 p.m., the attorney said he was initially reluctant to provide information about the alleged crimes, citing his 2019 mayoral bid in which he called for then-Police Chief Art Acevedo’s resignation.

Acevedo recently took a job as police chief of the Miami Police Department. Buzbee, however, said he has since discovered that Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, has a son “who is on of (sic) the exclusive Command Staff of HPD.”

“I am not saying in any way that Deshaun Watson’s lawyer, Mr. Hardin, has a son who has a position that would compromise HPD and its investigation,” Buzbee wrote. “I support his service, along with all Houston police officers—I think the rank and file know that. But, I am saying that me and my clients will go elsewhere to provide our evidence to investigative authorities. Stand by.”

Buzbee said his legal team has been “roundly criticized” for not filing formal complaints with the Houston Police Department. He said the team has “provided info to other organizations” but did not elaborate in the post.

What “other organizations” might those be? Who knows. I’m not going to try to interpret the musings from Tony Buzbee’s galaxy brain. He’s got a strategy and he’s clearly got evidence to back him up – see Sean Pendergast’s analysis of the five most damaging allegations against Watson for an appraisal of that – and he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do. At some point, we’ll see what the endgame that Buzbee has in mind is. In the meantime, the lawsuit count is up to 21. And as of Wednesday, we now have this.

In a concerted attempt to paint Watson in a more favorable light, Watson’s defense released statements Wednesday from 18 women who “are deeply troubled by the accusations” made against Watson and who believe the allegations are “wholly inconsistent with their experiences with him and who they believe him to be.” All 18 women who released statements Wednesday supporting Watson made their identities public.

Watson’s defense attorney Rusty Hardin said these women who have spoken out on Watson’s behalf have collectively worked with the Texans star “more than 130 times over the past five years.”

“These statements show the other side to this story that has been so lacking in the flurry of anonymous complaints filed by opposing counsel,” Hardin said. It’s the most vigorous attempt from Hardin yet to defend Watson, and comes after Hardin claimed last week that at least one of Watson’s accusers had privately attempted to blackmail the quarterback into paying her to keep quiet about what happened during their massage appointment.

Several therapists are quoted, and you can go read what they have to say if you wish. I get where this is coming from – whatever ultimately happens with the allegations and lawsuits, Watson’s reputation has taken a big hit, so some of this is an attempt to mitigate that damage – but the old-school “well, he never did anything untoward around me” defense is, at best, not on point. I would hope by now that we have internalized the idea that a person can behave differently in different contexts and around different people. It’s dangerously close to victim-blaming, and that’s a road we should want to avoid.

Another Watson lawsuit update

The count is now nineteen.

Nineteen women have now accused Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual assault after three massage therapists filed separate lawsuits Sunday night.

The latest accusations involve women who said Watson assaulted and harassed them during massage sessions at various points in 2020. Watson and his attorney, Rusty Hardin, have denied the allegations. Well-known Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, a former mayoral candidate, is representing the women.

In the latest lawsuit, Buzbee claimed Watson is deleting Instagram messages and contacting some of the women in an attempt to settle. Hardin issued a statement Monday afternoon in response to the allegation.

“Like a lot of people, Deshaun regularly deletes past Instagram messages,” Hardin said. “That said, he has not deleted any messages since March 15th, the day before the first lawsuit was filed. We categorically deny that he has reached out directly to his accusers in an attempt to settle these cases.”

“Opposing counsel’s continued statements that these cases aren’t about money do not square with the facts in at least two of these cases. It is incredibly irresponsible to continue to make these types of false allegations in this avalanche of anonymous lawsuits, particularly while we are still trying to find out who the accusers are. We will address these issues, and others raised in these cases, in our formal response to the court in the coming weeks.”

[…]

“Plaintiffs have not brought these cases for money or attention; instead Plaintiffs seek a change in behavior with regard to Watson, and a change of culture in the NFL,” the 19th lawsuit reads.

See here and here for the previous updates, and click on the story link to see a copy of the latest lawsuit. Deleting material evidence (if indeed Watson has done so) could be a problem, which I presume is why Rusty Hardin is out there denying it. I will be very interested to see what their eventual formal response looks like. Sean Pendergast has more.

The Buzbee blitz

It’s been working.

On a Tuesday night, Tony Buzbee announced on Instagram that his client was suing Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

With a handful of social media posts, the crackerjack trial lawyer teased more sexual assault allegations to come. By the next Tuesday, 16 women had accused the Pro Bowl player of similar forms of misconduct in 16 separate lawsuits.

Known as a bulldog in the courtroom and a grandiose presence on the local news, the former mayoral candidate retained a firm grasp of the narrative. At first only speaking through social media, he dropped each lawsuit individually, and each accusation dominated the daily news crawl.

Buzbee is known as one of Houston’s most media-savvy attorneys, and the Watson case has been no exception. He has exploited news outlets’ desire for a buzz-inducing story in order to snowball his cases through the legal system, lawyers and analysts say, coinciding with a fragile Texans sports landscape that has kept Watson front-and-center during his unsuccessful attempts to leave the team.

The reality is that Buzbee has earned his reputation by creative and strong-arm tactics to pressure civil defendants into settling, said Sean Buckley, a Houston civil and criminal defense attorney. The Watson cases are prime examples of that, he added.

“The intense and ongoing publicity surrounding the Deshaun Watson allegations appears clearly calculated to pressure Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg into filing criminal charges against Watson,” Buckley said. “To that end, a formal investigation or prosecution of Deshaun Watson would impair Watson’s ability to defend against Buzbee’s civil lawsuits.”

I’m not going to make any jokes about Buzbee’s Mayoral campaign or his weird life choices because this is a serious topic and I don’t want to make light of the charges that have been levied against Deshaun Watson. There may be room for that when this is farther along, but not now. I’m also not going to comment any further on a story that is a mostly glowing profile of Tony Buzbee because there are no circumstances under which he needs or deserves that from me.

Meanwhile, if you’re wondering how Watson’s defense might take shape, here’s one item of interest.

Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was the subject of a $30,000 blackmail attempt from one of the 16 massage therapists alleging sexual assault and harassment in civil litigation, according to a sworn affidavit released by his Houston-based attorney, Rusty Hardin.

Bryan Burney, the marketing manager for Watson, submitted in the affidavit that “Jane Doe” believed to be the third plaintiff out of of 16 civil lawsuits filed by Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, stated that she wanted $30,000 for her ‘indefinite silence’ regarding an alleged Dec. 28, 2020 encounter with Watson. The civil suit alleges that Watson “coerced and intimidated” her to perform oral sex on him at a Houston office building.

“I asked her what she would be silent about and whether anything had happened with Deshaun against her will,” Burney stated. “She confirmed that everything that occurred was consensual during her encounter with Deshaun. I asked Ms. Doe why Deshaun should pay for silence regarding something that was consensual — whatever it was. She said that it was a matter that both she and Deshaun would wish to keep secret and that she would need to be paid for her ‘silence.’”

Burney stated that after that conversation, he received a call from a man saying he was the alleged victim’s business manager, that the encounter would be “embarrassing” if Watson didn’t pay what was demanded.

“I told this individual that his demand to be paid for not revealing a consensual interaction between two adults was extortion,” Burney said. “He responded, “It’s not extortion, it’s blackmail. I informed this individual that Deshaun would not be paying the $30,000 requested.

You can read the rest, including the full sworn statement. The idea is that if one accusation is (arguably) false, then maybe the others are as well. We’re a long way away from the finish line in this story, so let’s just leave this here and see what else may develop. And yes, the accuser count is now up to sixteen.

Deshaun Watson lawsuit count now at 13

There may still be more.

Six additional women have filed sexual assault lawsuits against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Well-known Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, also a former mayoral candidate, has now filed 13 pieces of litigation against the Pro-Bowl football player. Most of the accusers are massage therapists who allege Watson harassed them and exposed himself during sessions.

Watson and his attorney, Rusty Hardin, have denied the allegations. Watson is simultaneously attempting to leave the Texans but remains in a standoff with the team after formally requesting a trade in January.

One of the latest lawsuits involves a licensed massage therapist who said she gave Watson a massage in Atlanta, Georgia in March 2021. Watson exposed himself and touched her with his penis, she claims in the suit.

That’s March 2021, as in this very month. The flood of lawsuits began last week, and per The Athletic Tony Buzbee has said he “planned to file at least 12 cases against Watson but had met with 10 additional women about filing similar complaints”, so we’re not done yet. And as Stephanie Stradley reminds us, the processes involved – both the judicial system (civil and criminal) and the NFL’s own investigation – will take time, longer than any of us would like it to take. So try to be patient, it’s going to be awhile before we get any outside review of these awful, horrible accusations.

UPDATE: Up to fourteen now.

The accusations against Deshaun Watson keep piling up

Damn.

Four more women have accused Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual assault.

The new lawsuits, all filed Thursday and made publicly available Friday morning, mean seven women total have alleged Watson assaulted or harassed them. All of them are massage therapists, work at spas or specialize in body conditioning and wellness. Many of them are single mothers.

Each of the allegations center around separate occasions in 2020, mostly involving Watson reaching out to the women via social media and asking for massage sessions, according to the litigation. In each suit, the women describe a situation in which Watson is almost completely in control, dictating their work and refusing to listen when he made them uncomfortable.

[…]

Watson has not commented on the claims since Tuesday, when he categorically denied disrespecting any woman and said he looked forward to clearing his name. He is being represented by Houston attorney Rusty Hardin, who has worked with other prominent Houston athletes such as former Astros pitcher Roger Clemens.

His agent, David Mulugheta, commented about the cases Friday on Twitter.

“Sexual assault is real. Victims should be heard, offenders prosecuted,” he said. “Individuals fabricate stories in pursuit of financial gain often. Their victims should be heard, and those offenders also prosecuted. I simply hope we keep this same energy with the truth.”

All of the women’s suits have been brought by Tony Buzbee, another well-known attorney and a former mayoral candidate.

See here for the background. As before, the story contains graphic details that I’d rather not reproduce here – go read the story for the rest, but be prepared, it’s quite ugly. There are more lawsuits coming, too. I don’t know what to think right now. The allegations are horrible, but Watson does have the right and the opportunity to address them and defend himself. Maybe one or more of these cases will end up with a verdict or a settlement, and maybe none of them will. At some point, we all have to make up our minds. I would much rather live in a world where none of this happened, but I don’t get to make that choice. The Press has more.

Lawsuit filed against Deshaun Watson

This is super ugly.

A licensed massage therapist has accused Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual assault.

Prominent lawyer Tony Buzbee, a former Houston mayoral candidate, filed the lawsuit late Tuesday. He first shared brief information in a post on Instagram, saying the litigation was “about dignity and stopping behavior that should be stopped.”

The massage therapist, identified as Jane Doe, said she had never met Watson before or dealt with any members of the Texans organization. She received a direct message from the Pro Bowl quarterback on Instagram on March 28, 2020, she said.

[…]

Watson responded to the claims, in which the masseuse alleges Watson touched her inappropriately during a massage session at her home in March 2020.

“As a result of a social media post by a publicity-seeking plaintiff’s lawyer, I recently became aware of a lawsuit that has apparently been filed against me,” Watson said in his response. “I have not yet seen the complaint, but I know this: I have never treated any woman with anything other than the utmost respect. The plaintiff’s lawyer claims that this isn’t about money, but before filing suit he made a baseless six-figure settlement demand, which I quickly rejected.”

The statement went on to say that “this isn’t about money for me — it’s about clearing my name, and I look forward to doing that.”

Prominent Houston defense attorney Rusty Hardin is representing Watson in the lawsuit, he confirmed. Hardin, who has represented other athletes such as Roger Clemens, was not available for comment Wednesday.

The Texans on Wednesday morning issued a separate statement addressing the allegations.

“We became aware of a civil lawsuit involving Deshaun Watson through a social media post last night,” the statement reads. “This is the first time we heard of the matter, and we hope to learn more soon. We take accusations of this nature that involve anyone within the Houston Texans organization seriously. We will await further information before making any additional statements on this incident.”

An NFL spokesman said “We are aware of the suit, but will decline further comment at this time.”

I skipped the details, in which the massage therapist alleges that she was sexually assaulted by Watson. You can read it in the story and in the lawsuit, which is embedded in the story. Watson’s statement is here. There are some claims about Instagram DMs and text messages that should be objectively verifiable. Beyond that, we’ll have to see what happens. Sean Pendergast has more.

UPDATE: Now there are two accusers. This is getting worse.

Vaccines at the stadia

Good. Everyone has a role to play in getting us all vaccinated.

The NFL is telling the federal government it will make the remaining of the league’s 30 stadiums available as COVID-19 vaccination sites, joining the seven facilities already administering the vaccine.

In a letter to President Joe Biden obtained by The Associated Press on Friday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said many of the stadiums should be able to get vaccination efforts moving quickly because of previous offers to use stadiums as virus testing centers and election sites.

The seven clubs already using their stadiums as vaccine sites are Arizona, Atlanta, Baltimore, Carolina, Houston, Miami and New England.

“We look forward to further discussion with your administration as well as your partners in state and local governments to advance this effort,” Goodell wrote to Biden in a letter dated Thursday.

Goodell said the offer on vaccination sites was made in conjunction with the NFL inviting 7,500 vaccinated health care workers to attend the Super Bowl for free Sunday. Kansas City is playing Tampa Bay in the Buccaneers’ home stadium.

If we can get supply ramped up enough, we should be in a better position to actually get the shots into people’s arms. Every little bit helps.

The entire NCAA men’s tournament in one place

If we’re able to have an NCAA basketball season at all, then something like this makes some sense.

The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee announced today the relocation of 13 predetermined preliminary round sites for the 2021 Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.

In recent weeks, the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee has engaged in a thorough contingency planning process to determine the most effective way to conduct a safe and healthy March Madness for all participants for the 2021 championship. Through these discussions, it became apparent to the committee that conducting the championship at 13 preliminary round sites spread throughout the country would be very difficult to execute in the current pandemic environment. The committee has decided the championship should be held in a single geographic area to enhance the safety and well-being of the event.

As a result, NCAA staff are in preliminary talks with the State of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis to potentially host the 68-team tournament around the metropolitan area during the coordinated dates in March and April. Indianapolis was already slated to host the Men’s Final Four from April 3-5, 2021.

“My committee colleagues and I did not come lightly to the difficult decision to relocate the preliminary rounds of the 2021 tournament, as we understand the disappointment 13 communities will feel to miss out on being part of March Madness next year,” said Mitch Barnhart, chair of the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee and University of Kentucky athletics director. “With the University of Kentucky slated to host first- and second-round games in March, this is something that directly impacts our school and community, so we certainly share in their regret. The committee and staff deeply appreciate the efforts of all the host institutions and conferences, and we look forward to bringing the tournament back to the impacted sites in future years.”

The committee emphasized the importance of conducting the championship in a manageable geographic area that limits travel and provides a safe and controlled environment with competition and practice venues, medical resources and lodging for teams and officials all within proximity of one another.

“We have learned so much from monitoring other successful sporting events in the last several months, and it became clear it’s not feasible to manage this complex championship in so many different states with the challenges presented by the pandemic,” said Dan Gavitt, NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball. “However, we are developing a solid plan to present a safe, responsible and fantastic March Madness tournament unlike any other we’ve experienced.”

Basically, this is a bigger version of the NBA playoff bubble. If you scroll down at the link, you’ll see there were 13 other locations that would be involved if nothing changes – Dayton for the First Four, then eight first and second round locations, plus four regional final locations. (Dallas is an opening rounds, the only Texas city on the list.) You can eliminate a lot of travel by consolidating down to one location, but it’s a much bigger logistical challenge because there will be so many teams present, even if (sadly) it won’t be all of them.

Now again, all this assume there will be an NCAA men’s basketball season. (This story is about the men’s tournament committee – I have to assume that if they go this route, the women’s tournament committee will at least consider following suit.) As we’ve discussed before, while basketball involves fewer people per team than football, at least football can be played outside. NCAA hoops would be going on right now in a normal year, and no one can say when or if the regular season will start, though I’m sure the current plan is for January, with a shortened conference-only schedule. The issue of crowds (short answer: hell no) will have to be addressed, and of course the certainty of players and coaches and other personnel testing positive will wreak havoc. I want to believe we’ll be able to have March Madness in 2021, that we’ll be at a point where it’s reasonably safe to do so. But we sure have a long way to go to get there.

Coronavirus and college sports update

What life is like for Texas’ college football teams.

In the world of COVID-19-era college football, Sunday is a day not for resting but for testing.

Each Sunday this fall brings a new set of checklists and guideposts that players and staff members must negotiate before they can think about playing, let alone winning, on any given Saturday.

It has not been a uniformly smooth road for Texas’ 12 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Nine of the 12 have had at least one game on their revised schedules affected by their own positive COVID tests or those of an opponent.

This weekend alone, Texas A&M and Rice were idle because their games against Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, respectively, were postponed as college football enters the final month of its truncated, delayed regular season. Nationally, 15 games were postponed or canceled this weekend.

But with the exception of Rice, which delayed its season opener into October, each of the 12 Texas schools will exit this weekend having played at least a half-dozen games, which speaks to their success in maintaining the discipline required for success and health.

“We’re asking 18- to 22-year-olds in the most social time of their lives to be more mature than many adults are being,” said Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades. “They’re doing a pretty darn good job of following the rules and being disciplined.”

A month remains, though, in which things can go awry quickly.

“We can’t let our guard down,” said Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork. “We can’t get too comfortable, especially with our communities surging right now. But everyone has done a great job.”

While each of the five conferences represented by the 12 Texas schools — the American Athletic, Big 12, Conference USA, Southeastern and Sun Belt — have their own weekly procedures, all are on the same approximate schedule.

You can read on for the details, but basically it’s testing on Sunday and at least one other day, contact tracing and quarantining anyone who was in contact with someone who tested positive, coordinating with the visiting teams, and so on. With the exception of Texas State, every school that is playing football has had at least one game postponed, with those that had scheduled non-conference games having them mostly or all canceled. I’ll be honest, this has gone better than I expected in terms of getting the games played – the effect of the outbreak in the towns that have these universities is another story, but that’s about more than just the games – though the wisdom of doing this at all seems to have been accepted regardless of the outcome. I think we’re going to be debating that for a long time.

Meanwhile, this is the time of year when college basketball normally gets underway. Suffice it to say, there are challenges. At least football is played outdoors, where some of the COVID risks can be minimized. If there’s going to be basketball of any kind before a vaccine is fully rolled out, I don’t see how it can be done with fans in the stands. We’ll know what they’re up to soon.

And the PAC12 flip flops, too

Everyone’s playing football again.

The Pac-12 will play a seven-game conference football season beginning Nov. 6, the league announced Thursday.

The decision, voted on by the Pac-12’s CEO group on Thursday, represents an official reversal after the conference announced in early August it would postpone all sports until at least Jan. 1, citing health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This has been the result of what we said back in August — that we’d follow the science, follow the data, follow the advice from our medical experts,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said, “and that we know how badly our student-athletes want to compete, as student-athletes for the Pac-12, but that we would only do so when we felt that we could do so safely.”

In a release, the Pac-12 said men’s and women’s basketball can begin Nov. 25 while other winter sports can begin in line with their respective NCAA seasons. Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said other fall sports, such as cross country, soccer and volleyball, will continue to plan for a spring season.

[…]

In August, the Pac-12’s CEO group, which includes a president or chancellor from each university, voted unanimously to postpone the season. The explanation for the postponement included the need for daily rapid turnaround tests for COVID-19. At the time, there wasn’t a belief that would be possible during the fall.

However, that changed less than a month later when the conference reached an agreement with a company to provide daily tests approved by the Food and Drug Administration that are expected to be operational in early October.

Along with daily antigen testing, athletes will take at least one polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test per week.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports remains our guiding light and number one priority,” Pac-12 CEO group chair and Oregon president Michael Schill said in a statement. “Our CEO Group has taken a measured and thoughtful approach to today’s decision, including extensive consultation with stakeholders on the evolving information and data related to health and safety.”

The conference faced additional pressure after the ACC, Big 12 and SEC remained set on playing in the fall. There was a common belief in the Pac-12, sources said, that after the Big Ten postponed its season, the other Power 5 conferences would eventually do the same. When that didn’t happen and the Big Ten faced significant pressure to change course, and eventually did, the Pac-12 was left to find a way not to be the only Power 5 conference idle in the fall.

After the Big Ten’s announcement last week, Scott quickly pointed to governmental restrictions in California and Oregon that prevented the six Pac-12 schools in those states from practicing. By the end of the day, governors from both states publicly indicated that nothing at the state level would prevent the Pac-12 season from taking place.

See here for the background, and here for the PAC 12’s statement. No one will be allowed at on campus games until at least January. It does indeed seem inevitable that once the Big Ten came back, the PAC 12 would follow. Now even some non-Power Five conferences are also returning, as the Mountain West Conference made a similar announcement. Just because they’re back doesn’t mean they’ll end up playing all the games they intend to play – just ask the University of Houston, which has had four games against four different opponents get cancelled for COVID reasons. And if you think all this is weird and perhaps ill-advised, just wait till basketball starts.

UPDATE: And the MAC is back, too, meaning that all FBS conferences will be playing some form of a football schedule this fall.

Big 10 flip flops on football

It’s a powerful force.

The Big Ten announced Tuesday that its Council of Presidents and Chancellors has voted to allow the league to play football in fall 2020. The Big Ten will open its season on the weekend of Oct. 24 with teams playing eight regular-season games over eight weeks along with a Big Ten Championship Game and six additional consolation games.

The Big Ten Championship Game is scheduled for Dec. 19, making the Big Ten eligible or the College Football Playoff as the final CFP Rankings announcement of the season is set or Dec. 20.

The Big Ten will also play league consolation games with teams placing second- through seventh-place in their divisions matching up on Dec. 19. There may be adjustments to those games, however, as Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said the Big Ten will try to avoid repeat matchups if teams had already played in the regular season.

Tickets will not be sold and fans will not be allowed to attend games this season, though exceptions may be made for families of athletes, coaches and staff.

The conference will now feature daily, rapid COVID-19 testing as a focal point of its return to play plan. Testing for athletes and coaches will begin on Sept. 30. The earliest an athlete could return to game competition is 21 days following a positive diagnosis. Additionally, the Big Ten unveiled new information on its plans for myocarditis screening in the wake of any positive tests. Both of those were major concerns that were among the main reasons for the Big Ten’s original decision to cancel fall football on Aug. 11.

See here for the background, and here for the Big Ten’s statement on testing and other protocols. That just leaves the PAC 12 among the Power 5 conferences not playing football this fall, though many other conferences have opted out. Maybe this will work, and maybe the carping from people who want to know why the schools aren’t providing tests for all of their students won’t be a drag, but it’s fair to say there will be issues.

Despite the delayed start, there remain numerous roadblocks for an actual return to football. Wisconsin football and hockey, for example, recently paused for two weeks after a rash of COVID-19 positives. Meanwhile, games across the country continue to be postponed left and right. Virginia-Virginia Tech, Houston-Memphis, Army-BYU and SMU-TCU are just some of the 13 games that have already been postponed; some games may be canceled if new dates are not easily achieved.

Like I said, maybe this will work. And maybe it will be a huge mess. This Slate piece argues that if you were going to do college football this fall, you’d want to do it the way the Big 10 is proposing to do it, so we’ll see. Good luck and let’s hope nobody’s health is permanently damaged as a result.

No fans (at first) for the Texans

You’ll have to watch the Texans’ home opener on your teevee.

Fans will not be allowed to attend the Texans’ home opener against Baltimore because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Texans play the Ravens on Sept. 20 at NRG Stadium after beginning the season Sept. 10 in a nationally televised game against the defending Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

The Texans will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation and rely on recommendations from team and NFL medical experts before they decide on fans being able to attend the second home game on Oct. 4 against Minnesota.

They’ll make a decision about Game 2 later.

Team president Jamey Rootes said they will wait before making a decision on the second home game Oct. 4 against Minnesota.

“That’s a tough decision,” Bill O’Brien said Saturday in a Zoom conference call. “I know Cal (McNair) and Jamey came to that decision because it’s in the best interests of the health and safety of our fans and where we are right now with this virus.”

The Texans have sold out every home game in team history. O’Brien talks often about the fans who give them a home-field advantage.

“It’s tough,” he said. “You think back to the Buffalo (playoff) game last year, the crowd was such a big part of that win for us. And many, many other games since I’ve been here that they’re really willed us to win. We won’t see them in September, but (we hope) to see them soon.”

The Texans developed a plan months ago for a limited number of fans to attend games. Based on Friday’s decision, the first time they’ll have a chance to implement that plan will be against the Vikings.

Well, they can always pipe in crowd noise and add cardboard cutout fans, if they want. For those of you who just have to see a game live, there’s always road games, if you can’t wait that long.

When the Texans open the regular season against the Kansas City Chiefs, the defending Super Bowl champions plan to have fans in the stands at Arrowhead Stadium.

The Chiefs announced Monday that they plan to have a reduced capacity of 22 percent to start the season.

[…]

The Chiefs said they made their plans in consultation with the NFL, medical professionals and local government officials.

The Chiefs said they have implemented enhanced cleaning and sanitation procedures, including social distancing, hand sanitization stations, cashless pay for transactions and mask requirements except when actively eating and drinking. The Chiefs ask fans to bring their own masks upon entering Arrowhead Stadium, but will provide commemorative masks to all fans attending the first three home games.

Who could turn down that opportunity?

The economic effect of losing college football this fall

I have some sympathy, but I also have some skepticism.

Texas’ five major conference football teams – Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at Austin — are massive economic drivers for their cities of Waco, Fort Worth, College Station, Lubbock and Austin, respectively, generating a flood of seasonal business for hotels, restaurants and bars in a typical year.

Economists and city leaders said canceling football would be devastating to local businesses that rely on the huge influxes of cash from home games.

“Forgoing even a single game costs the economy millions,” said Ray Perryman, a Waco economist and CEO of The Perryman Group. “Dealing with the health crisis is essential and must be given paramount priority, but the economic costs of restricting or eliminating college sports are very high.”

[…]

Doug Berg, an economics professor at Sam Houston State University, said towns like Lubbock and College Station would feel the impact of lost game day revenue more than larger cities like Austin with its more diversified business base.

Still, UT-Austin reported in 2015 it had a local economic impact of more than $63 million per home game.

A bigger proportion of municipal budgets in smaller towns is derived from sales and hotel occupancy taxes – both of which typically experience significant hikes during football season. For college towns, “it’s like losing Christmas,” Berg said.

The toll of losing football is “larger than we care to fathom,” said Eddie McBride, president of the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce.

One typical home game at Texas Tech, with an average attendance of about 60,000 people, pours “millions of dollars” back into the city of Lubbock, McBride said.

“We do count a lot on football,” McBride said. “It isn’t just sold seats…it’s going to people’s houses and buying food and drinks from the local grocery store and the beer store, and then going to the bars and the restaurants to watch the game.”

As we now know, the Big 12 will be playing football this fall, though what the situation with fans in the stands will be remains unclear. That’s not great for the Lubbocks and Wacos, but it’s not the worst case scenario, either. I can believe that Game Day is an economic boon in these smaller cities, but I’m way too skeptical of this type of financial forecasting to take the gloom and doom too seriously. The pattern is always big statements up front about what will or may happen, then no followup after the event in question to say what did happen. I’ve just been conditioned by too many of these in the past to take them at face value.

I mean sure, there will be fewer people visiting Lubbock and Waco on these Saturdays, and that will undoubtedly mean fewer hotel rooms rented and less beer consumed. That adds up to something, whatever it may actually be. One might speculate that the savings from fewer people catching COVID-19 as a result of this lessened activity balances this out. Maybe Ray Perryman can work up a spreadsheet on that.

College sports roundup

Southland Conference postpones fall sports.

After much deliberation, the Southland Conference has postponed league competition in all of its fall sports with the intent of playing a football season in the spring of 2021 due to concerns over COVID-19.

The Southland will, however, allow teams to play nonconference games if they choose.

Houston Baptist, for example, plans on playing its three scheduled nonconference football games this fall, including at Texas Tech. HBU’s other nonconference opponents are North Texas and Louisiana Tech.

The Huskies also will participate in nonconference games in volleyball and women’s soccer.

[…]

Sam Houston State will not try to play any sports in the fall, but Stephen F. Austin said it would.

HBU will play three opponents (North Texas, Texas Tech, and Louisiana Tech) who will pay them for the game. That’s one way to mitigate the financial hit for this.

West Coast Conference postpones fall sports.

Keeping in line with many other leagues around the country, the West Coast Conference, which includes BYU, announced Thursday that it has postponed all conference fall competition due to the coronavirus pandemic and is looking at ways to compete in the spring.

The decision was reached by the WCC Presidents’ Council after consulting with the league’s 10 athletic directors and commissioner Gloria Nevarez over the past several weeks.

This move impacts women’s volleyball, soccer, men’s cross-country and women’s cross-country. But it doesn’t affect men’s and women’s basketball, which is scheduled to tip off in November.

The conference “remains fully committed and continues to work closely with campus leadership on plans to ensure a safe environment to conduct the 2020-21 WCC men’s and women’s basketball seasons in the winter,” according to league officials. “The conference intends to explore various models for conducting WCC competition in the fall sports of men’s and women’s cross-country, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball in the spring of 2021. The WCC strongly supports efforts to encourage the National Collegiate Athletic Association to conduct fall NCAA championships in the spring.”

The WCC includes Gonzaga, so you can understand the desire to play basketball.

Southern Conference postpones fall sports.

VMI will not play Virginia nor any other football team this fall.

The Southern Conference announced Thursday that it is postponing its fall sports season until next spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. SoCon presidents voted on the matter Thursday afternoon.

Although SoCon games are moving to the spring, the conference is permitting its teams to still play nonleague games this fall.

But VMI decided not to exercise that option. So the Keydets will not play their scheduled game at UVa on Sept. 11.

“We made the decision, our CEOs did, regarding fall moving to spring, and we support that and believe it’s in the best interest of our cadet athletes to shift things to the [spring],” VMI athletic director Dave Diles said Thursday in a phone interview. “And therefore [VMI] didn’t feel it was the right thing to have any additional parts separated from that decision.”

VMI would have received $375K to play UVa.

Horizon League postpones fall sports.

The Horizon League has canceled sports this fall.

On Thursday afternoon, the league announced it has postponed all competition for fall sports. Among the schools in the Horizon League are Detroit Mercy and Oakland.

In total, 10 sports have been canceled, including men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s golf, baseball, softball, men’s tennis and women’s volleyball.

The league said any decision to move fall sports competition to the spring will be made at a later date. Individual schools will implement their own rules involving team workouts, in accordance with NCAA and state guidelines.

The Horizon League had previously voted to delay the start of the fall sports season until October 1.

Big Sky and Western Athletic Conferences postpone fall sports.

There won’t be any sports competitions this fall in either the Big Sky Conference or Western Athletic Conference due to health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both leagues made their announcements Thursday and are looking at the possibility of moving fall competition to the spring. It impacts four Utah colleges: Weber State and Southern Utah in the Big Sky, and Utah Valley and Dixie State in the WAC.

The Big Sky had previously announced it would postpone the league’s conference competition in football this fall, and Thursday’s news confirms there won’t be any nonconference play in any sport. The decision also impacts Big Sky competition in sports like men’s and women’s cross-country, soccer and volleyball that compete for their championships in the fall, as well as those in their nonchampionship portion of the season, including men’s and women’s golf, softball, men’s and women’s tennis.

[…]

The Big Sky punted making a decision on when the league’s winter sports — men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s indoor track and field — could start competition.

The WAC’s fall championship sports impacted include men’s and women’s cross-country, volleyball and men’s and women’s soccer. The league also said the earliest possible competition date for sports in the nonchampionship portion of their season is Jan. 1, 2021, affecting men’s and women’s golf, baseball, and softball.

The WAC will discuss winter athletics competition at a later date, while saying competition in men’s and women’s basketball and men’s and women’s swimming and diving competition will be postponed through the end of October.

All of these conferences are FCS; the WAC used to be FBS, but dropped football after lots of schools moved to other conferences. Also, FCS school New Mexico State postponed its fall sports, becoming the third independent FCS school to do so, following the University of Connecticut and the University of Massachusetts. They all join the Big 10 and the PAC 12 in sitting it out for now, leaving the fall to the Big 12, SEC, and ACC

I don’t know what other FCS conferences there are out there, but for now at least this is what we’re going to get. I’m still quite skeptical that these three Power 5 conferences, plus the non-P5 FCS schools that are still in, can do this safely, but they’re going to try. And who knows, maybe they can. Sean Pendergast makes the case that the conferences that postponed were the foolish ones.

Regular students are coming back to campus anyway
At many of these schools, particularly in the Big Ten, regular students are actually returning to on campus classes this month. Yes, thousands of kids on campus, left to determine social distances and left for us to trust their masking policies. Football players at those schools will now be spending MORE time near the rest of those students. Also, if the Big Ten schools with student returning to campus are THAT concerned about COVID-19, to where they re canceling football, then why on earth are they bringing students back? It makes no sense.

Players in the SEC, ACC, and Big XII will have better access to testing and medical care
When they ultimately nail down hard and fast protocols, it is widely assumed that the SEC, ACC, and Big XII will obviously have some sort of regular testing for COVID-19. This, along with the access to top notch medical staff and facilities, make the players at those schools the most cared-for college students anywhere when it comes to COVID-19. Between frequent testing, the structure of a football regimen, and great doctors, you could argue the safest students in the country are the football players of the SEC, ACC, and Big XII. I feel for the Big Ten and Pac-12 kids who are now left without testing, and many of them being sent back to their hometowns, where depending on their family’s healthcare coverage, it’s hit or miss as to just how protected they are from the coronavirus.

Athletic departments budgets are about to be plundered, say goodbye to non-revenue sports
It would be naive to ignore the fiscal suicide being committed by the Big Ten and the Pac-12, who stand to lose tens of million of dollars by canceling the 2020 football season, basically out of fear — fear of bad press, fear of future litigation, fear of whatever. It’s why I wanted to establish first that the student-athletes in the conferences PLAYING football are actually safer from COVID-19, so my argument doesn’t appear mercenary. Big Ten schools pocket over $50 million per year from the Big Ten Network ALONE. Athletic departments stand to drown in a sea of red ink approaching nine figures. Non-revenue sports, basically everything that’s not football and basketball, that provide scholarship opportunities for literally thousands of kids, many female and minorities, are going to die under a financial guillotine when this is all said and done.

Playing a spring season is actually MORE dangerous than playing in the fall
Here is perhaps the least logical part of the whole thing — the Big Ten and Pac-12 are reportedly wanting to play in the spring. So this would mean playing a football season, which I’m assuming is a minimum of eight games, starting in, say March. This would run through May. Training camp for the fall season, assuming there’s a COVID vaccine and/or therapeutic medicine, would begin in July. That’s LESS than two months between seasons. Seasons of FOOTBALL. This is beyond malpractice, and far more abusive than any sort of exposure players would have to COVID-19. It seems that everyone wanting to cancel football, stuck in their coronavirus fetal position, conveniently forget that they’ve been watching and enjoying a sport for years that includes the risk of permanent head trauma.

Maybe! I think #3 is a legitimate concern, and #4 is a concern for a different reason, which I’ve seen expressed elsewhere: You’re moving football games from October and November to January and February, which are a lot colder and have more snow. That’s not great for a variety of reasons. Multiple football programs have had COVID outbreaks among their players already, some bigger than others, and I have plenty of doubts that the coaches, ADs, and whoever else is making these decisions has any idea what they’re going to do if a team has a similar outbreak during the season. And Lord help us if they all insist on having fans in attendance. I will readily admit, moving these sports to the spring has its share of risks and downsides. But let’s not underestimate the risk of staying the course.

The Big 12 will play football

That’s their plan, anyway.

The start of the Big 12 Conference’s college football season will move forward as scheduled, conference officials said Wednesday, meaning four major Texas football programs are one step closer to playing this fall.

“Ultimately, our student-athletes have indicated their desire to compete in the sports they love this season and it is up to all of us to deliver a safe, medically sound, and structured academic and athletic environment for accomplishing that outcome,” said Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby in a statement. The season will kick off Sept. 26, with the conference championship pegged for Dec. 12.

Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at Austin are Big 12 members. The conference presidents’ decision to allow football during the coronavirus pandemic was made official Wednesday morning, a day after the Big Ten and the Pac-12 announced their seasons would be postponed until the spring semester.

Bowlsby said member schools have committed to enhanced COVID-19 testing, with three tests per week in high contact sports. Non-conference football opponents must also adhere to testing protocols that match conference standards.

Texas A&M University is part of the Southeastern Conference, which has also signaled its intent to allow teams to play this fall.

“We will continue to further refine our policies and protocols for a safe return to sports as we monitor developments around COVID-19 in a continued effort to support, educate and care for our student-athletes every day,” said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey in a statement Tuesday.

So that’s two Power 5 conferences not playing in the fall, two that say they are, and the ACC. Of course, there are a ton of questions that will have to be addressed before this can be taken seriously, such as “how exactly are you going to keep all those people safe”, “what will be the protocol when someone (or several someones) tests positive”, and “do you really think that allowing fans in the stands is a good idea”. You can have all the bravado you want, but you better have some idea of what you’re doing when something inevitably goes wrong. In the meantime, all I can say is that it’s going to be an interesting autumn. Or possibly spring, if things do change. Reform Austin has more.

Big 10 and PAC 12 scrap football for this fall

Boom.

Big Ten Conference presidents and chancellors voted Tuesday to postpone all fall sports seasons, including football, with the hopes of playing in the spring, it announced Tuesday.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.

“We know how significant the student-athlete experience can be in shaping the future of the talented young women and men who compete in the Big Ten Conference. Although that knowledge made this a painstaking decision, it did not make it difficult. While I know our decision today will be disappointing in many ways for our thousands of student-athletes and their families, I am heartened and inspired by their resilience, their insightful and discerning thoughts, and their participation through our conversations to this point. Everyone associated with the Big Ten Conference and its member institutions is committed to getting everyone back to competition as soon as it is safe to do so.”

[…]

In making its decision, the Big Ten said it relied on the medical advice and counsel of the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee.

“Our primary responsibility is to make the best possible decisions in the interest of our students, faculty and staff,” Morton Schapiro, the Chair of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors and Northwestern University president, said in a statement.

The University of Nebraska, after Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost on Monday said his program is prepared “to look at any and all options” in order to play this fall, on Tuesday issued a joint statement saying “we are very disappointed in the decision by the Big Ten.”

“We have been and continue to be ready to play,” the Nebraska joint statement said. “Safety comes first. Based on the conversations with our medical experts, we continue to strongly believe the absolute safest place for our student athletes is within the rigorous safety protocols, testing procedures, and the structure and support provided by Husker Athletics.

“… We hope it may be possible for our student athletes to have the opportunity to compete.”

See here for the background. Here’s the official statement from the Big 10. Something I noticed after rereading my draft was that basketball, which obviously starts in the fall but has a sprint championship, was not mentioned in the news stories. It’s not mentioned in the statement either, so at this point there’s no news. Any postponement of basketball will have further effects, but for now that decision has not been made.

A few hours later, the PAC 12 followed suit.

The Pac-12 CEO group voted unanimously Tuesday to postpone fall sports and will look at options to return to competition next year, the conference announced.

“The health, safety and well-being of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports has been our number one priority since the start of this current crisis,” said Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott in a statement. “Our student-athletes, fans, staff and all those who love college sports would like to have seen the season played this calendar year as originally planned, and we know how disappointing this is.”

Impacted Pac-12 student athletes will continue to have their scholarships guaranteed. The conference is also encouraging the NCAA to grant students who opt out of playing this academic year an additional year of eligibility.

The league’s medical advisory group had “concerns that many of its current recommendations cannot be achieved consistently across all universities at this point in time. Currently, the availability of frequent, FDA-approved, accurate testing with rapid turn-around time vary at each of the Pac-12 institution locations. In addition, in many locations within the Conference, community test positivity rates and number of cases per 100,000 in the surrounding community exceed levels which infectious disease and public health officials deem safe for group sports.”

The medical advisory group said “it is anticipated that over the next few months, rapid point of care tests will become more available and we will have a greater understanding of potential short- and long-term health effects of COVID-19 to better inform medical decision-making.”

Here’s their statement, which says they will “postpone all sport competitions through the end of the 2020 calendar year”. That also doesn’t mention basketball, but as noted since a bunch of (generally non-conference) games are played in the fall, it would seem to affect that as well. We’ll see what that means.

Looking at the other Power 5 conferences, it seems that the SEC is most likely to try to have a season, while the Big 12 may be the last one to made a decision. Whatever happens from here, this was a first step. There will be tons of fallout and repercussions from this, and we may not see a return to “normal” for some time. And that’s without factoring in the financial consequences. Hold onto your hats. The AP, CBS Sports, Slate, and Daily Kos have more.

UPDATE: An interesting fact from the Chron: “As of Tuesday, 53 of the 130 FBS schools will not play football this fall.” Just a guess here, but that number is going to go up.

So where are we with college football?

Possibly on the brink of postponing the season.

Commissioners of the Power 5 conferences held an emergency meeting on Sunday, as there is growing concern among college athletics officials that the upcoming football season and other fall sports can’t be played because of the coronavirus pandemic, sources told ESPN.

No major decisions were made on Sunday night, but multiple sources in several Power 5 conferences have told ESPN the commissioners talked about trying to collaborate if their respective presidents do decide to cancel or postpone fall sports.

Several sources have indicated to ESPN that Big Ten presidents, following a meeting on Saturday, are ready to pull the plug on its fall sports season, and they wanted to gauge if commissioners and university presidents and chancellors from the other Power 5 conferences — the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — will fall in line with them.

Sources told ESPN that a vast majority of Big Ten presidents have indicated that they would vote to postpone football season, hopefully to the spring. A Big Ten official confirmed to ESPN that no official vote took place during Saturday’s meeting.

“It doesn’t look good,” one Power 5 athletic director said.

[…]

Several sources have told ESPN over the past 48 hours that the postponement or cancellation of the football season seems inevitable. Many of those sources believed it ultimately will take a Power 5 conference to move things in that direction and that either the Big Ten or Pac-12 would probably be the first league to do it.

“Nobody wanted to be the first to do it,” a Power 5 coach told ESPN, “and now nobody will want to be the last.”

A Power 5 administrator added: “It feels like no one wants to, but it’s reaching the point where someone is going to have to.”

As we know, all of the not-FBS conferences, as well as the MAC, have cancelled or postponed their fall sports. On Monday, the Mountain West Conference joined them. Today, the PAC 12 will have a meeting, and we’ll see what they decide. This could be the week when the plug gets pulled, which would mean spring football if everything is finally better by then.

Or maybe not. The University of Nebraska is considering its options in the event the Big 10 postpones its season. (As of last night, there were conflicting reports about the Big 10’s plans.) There is definitely support from some athletes and politicians for having a season, though as that story notes the reasons each group has for advocating its position are different. One possible outcome is some kind of massive realignment, maybe with a smaller number of schools playing, and/or a bunch of athletes moving to other schools to participate. I’m sure we’ll know more soon. But just remember, in a country where we had the political leadership to get COVID-19 under control, we’d be having a very different conversation right now.

UPDATE: Just noticed that Rice is pushing back the start of its season to September 26, with the intent to reschedule games against UH and Army that were originally planned for before that date. I guess that’s a baby step towards postponing till spring, but as of this writing Conference USA and the AAC were still on for the fall.

FBS versus FCS

I’m referring in the title to the two types of Division I NCAA college football, the Football Bowl Subdivision, which includes the power 5 conferences, and the Football Championship Subdivision, which used to be known as 1-AA and which has always had a playoff to determine its champion. Those of you who are fans of FCS football will have to wait till spring to see any of it.

The NCAA’s second-highest level of football won’t crown a 2020 champion as more schools announced Friday they wouldn’t take the gridiron this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Universities comprising the Missouri Valley Football ConferenceBig Sky Conference and Pioneer Football League all said they won’t play this fall, which effectively pulled the plug on postseason play for the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).

As FCS teams and conferences pulled out of fall play in recent weeks, the NCAA announced that FCS playoffs would be cancelled if 50 percent of eligible teams pulled out. When the MVFC, Big Sky and Pioneer all opted out of autumn football, that minimum threshold was breached.

Before Friday, a host of other FCS leagues had called off fall football: the Ivy LeaguePatriot LeagueColonial Athletic AssociationNortheast ConferenceSouthwestern Athletic Conference and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

The 2019 FCS title was won by North Dakota State University, which edged James Madison University in the final.

Lower levels of NCAA football, Division II and Division III, also had playoffs cancelled this week.

That’s an awful lot of college football that will not be happening this fall. And now some of the FBS action won’t be happening, either.

The Mid-American Conference has long been the home of Tuesday football, seven-overtime epics and the #MACtion hashtag that bonds together the most hardcore college football fans.

The MAC functions on the outer orbit of big-time college football, a key part of the food chain by providing early season buy games, midweek television inventory and early gambling opportunities for those who’ve endured lost weekends.

On Saturday, the MAC took over a new role in the college football universe — the center of attention. The MAC presidents met virtually Saturday morning and decided to cancel the fall football season, a source told Yahoo Sports. The MAC will focus on playing football in the spring. Stadium first reported the development.

All day Friday, athletic directors and coaches were fixated on the MAC as a potential harbinger for the sport. The MAC becomes the first FBS conference to cancel sports this fall, setting the table for a new question around the industry: “Who goes next?”

The Big Ten presidents are scheduled to meet on Saturday afternoon and discuss the league’s 2020 future, sources told Yahoo Sports. There’s some momentum among league presidents to cancel the fall season. But it’s unknown if there’s enough for a decision to be made immediately.

As noted before, the University of Connecticut, which now operates as an independent for football, cancelled its season as well. Optimism abounds elsewhere, with plans for mostly-full schedules and some fans in attendance. All I can say at this point is that it sure seems unlikely to me that “not playing football at all until spring” and “preparing to play football in the fall as if everything is more or less normal” cannot simultaneously be the optimal strategy. I don’t know at what point the FBS bubble bursts, but I feel like it has to sooner or later.

UT prepares for fantasy football

I have no idea what they’re thinking.

The University of Texas at Austin will kick off the football season Sept. 5, albeit with a stadium open at half its capacity, athletics officials told ticket holders Monday.

While both NCAA and Big 12 Conference officials have yet announce firm decisions on how college football will proceed as schools grapple with the pandemic, Texas athletics director Chris Del Conte sent an email Monday to season ticket holders announcing the season would move forward as planned.

“I want you to know that as we are working toward hosting football games this season, our number one priority remains the health and safety of our student-athletes, staff and fans,” Del Conte wrote.

To align with capacity restrictions designated by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this summer, Del Conte said seating at the Darrell K. Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium will be reduced to 50% to facilitate social distancing, meaning around 50,000 Longhorns could potentially be seated in stands next fall.

The decision comes on the heels of an outbreak among student athletes shortly after they arrived on campus to begin voluntary summer workouts. The school also reported its first death, a staff member, earlier this month. There have been more than 500 COVID-19 cases at UT-Austin since March, according to the school’s dashboard.

But officials have pushed forward with kicking off the football season as planned. The annual game between the Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners occurs during the State Fair of Texas, which organizers canceled this year. Still, Del Conte said earlier this month that the game will be played.

I mean, I know that Greg Abbott says its OK, but there’s just no way on God’s field-turfed Earth that this makes any sense. I certainly hope that we will have this current outbreak under some control by September 5, but does anyone think that virus levels will be low enough to allow for this kind of mass gathering? Again, I remind you, professional sports is gingerly and haltingly trying to play games in front of empty stadia, in some cases with teams that have been and will continue to be completely isolated from the rest of the world. What makes the NCAA think they can do better than that?

(Can you imagine being the owner of a restaurant that’s classified as a bar, or a winery, or a craft brewery with a beer garden and reading this story? The risk assessment here is just off the charts wacko.)

(Apparently, the beer gardens can reopen now. If they are aware of this very quiet decision, anyway.)

OK, I get that Chris Del Conte needs to address his season ticket holders, and assure them that the Longhorns are on top of this situation, and that if by some miracle they can play football in front of fans this year, UT has a plan to accommodate as many of them as they can. But geez, this is amazingly tone deaf.

Meanwhile, in something closer to the real world.

The Southwestern Athletic Conference on Monday became the latest conference to move its fall athletic calendar to the spring of 2021 due to concerns related to the COVID-19 global pandemic. The safety of its student-athletes was at the forefront of the decision.

“We’re still going to play football. It’s just a matter of moving it to the spring,” Texas Southern football coach Clarence McKinney said. “I like the decision. It gives us a chance to slow down and come up with a true plan to protect our student-athletes.”

Texas Southern, along with Prairie View A&M, is part of the SWAC’s five-state footprint that includes schools in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. Other fall sports impacted in the move are volleyball, cross country and soccer.

A part of the Football Championship Subdivision, the SWAC will go to a seven-game schedule in the spring of 2021, with the conference championship game hopefully to be played no later than April 30. Each football team will play six conference games (four divisional/two nondivisional) with an option to play one nonconference game.

I like their chances better than I like UT’s, I’ll say that much.

High school sports pushed back a bit

Just a guess, but I’d bet this winds up being redone at least once more before any actual sports get played.

The University Interscholastic League is delaying the start of high school football’s regular season to Sept. 24 for Class 6A and 5A schools with the state championships moved to January.

The change is part of the league’s altered fall sports schedule for the 2020-2021 school year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

For 6A and 5A schools, the first day of football practice and volleyball practice is now Sept. 7; volleyball’s regular season starts Sept. 14 with state championships Dec. 11-12; cross country meets and team tennis matches start Sept. 7; cross country’s state championship meet is Dec. 5 and team tennis’ state championships are Nov. 11-12.

Schools in Class 4A through Class 1A are remaining on the original schedule. For 1A-4A: football and volleyball practice begins Aug. 3; volleyball’s regular season starts Aug. 10; football regular season’s Aug. 27; volleyball’s state championships are Nov. 18-21; football’s state championships are Dec. 16-19.

The high school football playoffs for 6A and 5A schools are slated for an early December start with the district certification deadline of Dec. 5. For volleyball in these classifications, the deadline is Nov. 17.

[…]

In comparison with like-minded high school athletics governing bodies in Texas, The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools delayed the start of fall practice to Sept. 8 with competition beginning Sept. 21 and football season kicking off Sept. 28. The Southwest Preparatory Conference also delayed competition for its schools to Sept. 8 with conference games not occurring until the week of Sept. 21, at the earliest.

The California Interscholastic Federation is delaying its entire high school sports schedule with its football teams set to play its first games in late December or early January.

The Trib adds some more detail.

Marching bands across the state can begin their curriculums on Sept. 7.

The organization also issued guidance on face coverings, protocols for individuals exposed to COVID-19 and how to set up meeting areas like band halls and locker rooms.

Anyone 10 years or older must wear a face covering or face shield when in an area where UIL activities are underway, including when not actively participating in the sport or activity. People are exempt from the rule if they have a medical condition or disability that prevents wearing a face covering, while eating or drinking or in a body of water.

Some schools won’t have to follow UIL’s face covering rule if they are in a county with 20 or fewer active COVID-19 cases that has been approved for exemption by the Texas Department of Emergency Management. In that situation masks can still be mandated if the local school system implements the requirements locally, according to the press release. UIL still “strongly” encourages face coverings in exempt schools.

As the Chron story notes, many school districts have already announced the will begin the year as online-only, per the new TEA guidelines. Students at those schools will still be eligible to participate in UIL extracurriculars, which also includes music. This is from the Texas UIL Twitter feed:

The “Class” stuff refers to school size, where 6A and 5A are the largest schools – this classification used to stop at 5A, but suburban schools kept getting larger. It’s not clear to me why smaller schools – and 4A schools are still pretty big – are exempt from the schedule delay. In the end I don’t think it matters, because unless we really turn things around in the next couple of weeks it’s still not going to be safe, and the UIL will have to revisit this again. Don’t be surprised if in the end, everything gets delayed till the spring. The DMN has more.

Will college football shift to the spring?

Maybe.

[Dell] Billings, who graduated from A&M in 1995, also realizes it’s looking more like the brakes are about to be mashed on any “full speed ahead” approach, perhaps within a few weeks.

“I can’t see how we would be in the stands at Kyle Field when you have situations like ‘The Basketball Tournament’ that’s happening on ESPN right now and there are no fans,” Billings said. “That’s just a small tournament. How are you going to put 100,000 people inside a stadium in September?”

That is the multimillion-dollar question, one A&M, the Southeastern Conference and the rest of college football likely must answer by the end of this month.

“We said from the onset of this pandemic that circumstances around the virus would guide our decision-making, and it’s clear recent developments related to COVID-19 have not been trending in the right direction,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said this week. “There are important decisions to be made in the coming weeks, and by late July there should be more clarity about the fall season.”

The Ivy League on Wednesday is expected to announce that it will shift its football schedule to the spring semester. One Power Five administrator told The Athletic that could lead to a domino effect in college football.

“My suspicion is the majority of presidents in the (Football Bowl Subdivision) are uncomfortable with the notion of playing football this fall, but for various reasons don’t want to be the first to step out and say that,” the administrator told the website, adding that the Ivy League’s bold salvo “provides the cover” for others to follow suit.

The Ivy League has in fact suspended its fall sports schedule, including football. Other conferences are now taking baby steps in that direction.

The ACC will delay the start of competition for all fall sports until at least Sept. 1, the league announced Thursday. The move, which follows a similar decision by the Patriot League, will affect several sports, including soccer and field hockey, but not football.

The league said that affected games might be rescheduled and that there’s an understanding that cancellation of nonconference games will not result in financial penalties.

The ACC’s decision to delay the start of the fall season is the first by a Power 5 conference. The Patriot League has pushed its start back until Sept. 4, and the Ivy League announced the cancellation of all fall sports earlier this week.

The ACC’s football schedule is set to begin on Sept. 2 when NC State visits Louisville.

The decision was unanimously approved by the ACC board of directors.

As that story notes, while the football schedule hasn’t been affected yet, multiple schools have had to suspend workouts due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The Big Ten has taken a different tack, cancelling all non-conference games. I don’t know what’s going to happen – pushing everything off till spring seems like a remote possibility at this time, at least for the big conferences – but having stadia packed with fans seems even crazier now. I’ll say this much – if the various pro sports leagues are successfully operating as of August, then maybe the NCAA can do so as well. But if the pros can’t do it, there’s no way in hell the collegians can do it.

Fauci and football

I hate to rain on your tailgate, but…

The NFL is planning to begin its season on time, but Dr. Anthony Fauci pulled the reins on that optimistic view Wednesday.

“Unless players are essentially in a bubble – insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day – it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said on CNN. “If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.”

The NBA and MLS are planning to resume their seasons in July with players in a bubble. So far, the NFL hasn’t publicly discussed that option. A bubble also seems particularly untenable for college football teams on school campuses.

“Dr. Fauci has identified the important health and safety issues we and the NFL Players Association, together with our joint medical advisors, are addressing to mitigate the health risk to players, coaches, and other essential personnel,” the NFL’s chief medical offers Dr. Allen Sills told ESPN on Thursday. “We are developing a comprehensive and rapid-result testing program and rigorous protocols that call for a shared responsibility from everyone inside our football ecosystem. This is based on the collective guidance of public health officials, including the White House task force, the CDC, infectious disease experts, and other sports leagues.

“Make no mistake, this is no easy task. We will make adjustments as necessary to meet the public health environment as we prepare to play the 2020 season as scheduled with increased protocols and safety measures for all players, personnel, and attendees. We will be flexible and adaptable in this environment to adjust to the virus as needed.”

The NFL has maintained that training camps will start in late July and its regular season will begin as scheduled with the Texans playing at Kansas City on Sept. 10.

Don’t anyone tell Greg Abbott or Ross Bjork about this. That story appeared a day before we got stories about MLB and NHL teams closing their training facilities following positive COVID-19 tests. We’ve already seen other stories about NFL and NCAA teams doing the same. It’s more than fair to ask if teams can even keep their own people safe, let alone their customers. I’m as ready as anyone to see my favorite sports leagues and teams again. I just want it to be done safely, and right now the evidence that can be done at this time is not abundant.

What kind of college football season will there be?

News item: Governor says to expect half-full stadiums for college football.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told athletic directors from the state’s largest schools to expect 50 percent capacity at football games this fall, USA Today reported, but Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork is remaining optimistic.

With more than 80 days to Texas A&M’s first scheduled game against Abilene Christian at Kyle Field, Bjork said this is no time for absolutes when determining college attendance in the late summer and fall, based on the global pandemic.

“As of today, we still have time on our side,” Bjork said Saturday. “And we will not make decisions based on incomplete information.”

USA Today reported that Abbott met with the dozen athletic directors from the state’s Football Bowl Subdivision programs via teleconference Friday, and “told them not to expect capacity at their stadiums to be above 50 percent this fall.”

“The governor was very gracious with his time and provided us with insights into the current situation,” Bjork responded Saturday. “It’s disappointing that information from the meeting leaked since the discussion was meant to be confidential, and I will not disclose the details of the conversation and violate Gov. Abbott’s trust.”

Bjork, hired by A&M a year ago from the same position at Mississippi, added: “As we’ve learned throughout this unprecedented situation, everything remains fluid, and there are a number of scenarios for attending upcoming pro and college sporting events.”

Bjork has expressed confidence this month that Kyle Field might be near its capacity of more than 100,000 as the fall schedule presses on. The Aggies are scheduled to host ACU on Sept. 5 in coach Jimbo Fisher’s third season.

Emphasis mine, and the Chron has a separate story expanding on Bjork’s rather optimistic hypothesis. Abbott had previously stated that he expected college football to be played, though he didn’t specify at what capacity the stadia might be. I will remind you that at this point, all of the professional sports leagues, from the ones that are now playing to those that are still planning their comebacks, are playing in empty arenas. It’s impossible for me to square that with the likes of Kyle Field at full capacity. They can’t both be right.

And on that note, we have this:

The University of Houston abruptly halted voluntary workouts Friday after six student-athletes tested positive for COVID-19.

In a release, UH said it was suspending workouts – which began June 1 with football and men’s and women’s basketball – “out of an abundance of caution.” The school said the six symptomatic student-athletes had been placed in isolation and contract tracing procedures have been initiated.

The announcement comes nearly two weeks since voluntary workouts began and as the Houston area has seen a recent surge in positive tests for COVID-19.

UH becomes the first school to suspend athletic activities since the NCAA cleared the return of student-athletes back to campus following a nearly three-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

UH only tested student-athletes that showed symptoms or came from areas that had a high number of positive cases, a person with knowledge of the protocol told the Houston Chronicle earlier this week. Athletic officials have declined comment.

In other words, there are others they didn’t test that might possibly be positive as well. The story lists fourteen other schools that have reported athletes with positive COVID-19 tests, including three in the SEC. It is very likely that all of these athletes will recover fully – I certainly hope they all do – and now that they have been tested they can be quarantined so as not to pass the virus on to anyone else. UH is the only school in this story that actually stopped its voluntary workouts as a result of this, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. My point here is that whatever the likes of Greg Abbott and Ross Bjork may say or do, they ultimately have very little control over this virus. And as I keep saying, they don’t seem to have much of a plan for it, either.

UPDATE: Welp.

Several Texans and Cowboys players have tested positive for COVID-19, including Dallas star running back Ezekiel Elliott, according to the NFL Network.

The players who tested positive reportedly weren’t in attendance at their team facilities, which have remained closed due to NFL restrictions limiting their use only to rehabilitating injured players during this global pandemic. Both teams have followed medical protocols.

[…]

NFL teams, including the Texans, have taken steps to ensure the safety of players, coaches and staff. The Texans created a new position, hiring a facility hygiene coordinator earlier this offseason. The Texans are believed to be the first professional sports team to add this type of specialized position.

The intention is to minimize the risk factor of getting or spreading COVID-19 and supervise the custodial staff, which is provided by Aramark.

I know, that’s NFL, not NCAA. My point is, it’s not just a question of whether or not it’s safe to have fans in the stands. There’s still the little matter of whether it’s actually safe to have the players practice and play together.

UT athletes take a stand

Good for them.

Several athletes at the University of Texas at Austin are refusing to participate in recruiting incoming players or show up at donor-related events if university and athletics officials fail to respond to a list of demands geared toward supporting black students, according to a statement posted Friday afternoon by dozens of the student athletes on Twitter.

Brennan Eagles, the school’s sophomore wide receiver, and Brandon Jones, a senior defensive back, were among the students who posted the statement, detailing a list of actions Longhorn athletes want the university’s athletics department to take. These include donating 0.5% of the department’s annual earnings to the Black Lives Matter movement and black organizations, establishing a permanent black athletic history exhibit in the Athletics Hall of Fame and renaming parts of the football stadium after Julius Whittier, the first black football letterman at UT-Austin.

In addition to demands specific to the athletics department, athletes also want UT officials to rename campus buildings named after Texans who were proponents of segregation or held other racist views, remove a statue of prominent segregationist James Hogg and discontinue the school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” which has ties to minstrel shows and was created during segregation. Other calls to action include requiring a module on the history of racism at UT and increasing outreach efforts to inner-city schools in Austin, Dallas and Houston.

“We, as student athletes, and collectively as the University of Texas Longhorn football team, are aware that we are an athletic department made up of many black athletes, and believe that it is time we become active on our campus,” the statement reads.

Athletes will continue to practice and participate in workouts and team activities this summer but are asking for a “plan for implementation” before the fall semester begins.

[…]

After a widely circulated petition and statements from more than 100 student organizations, the larger UT student body sent a letter detailing student demands to interim President Jay Hartzell earlier this week. Their requests mirror those of the athletes — students want UT to “acknowledge its racist history” by renaming seven campus buildings and structures, removing the Hogg statue and discontinuing the school song.

Additionally, they are asking UT to cut ties with the Austin Police Department and campus police and adopt inclusive practices in recruiting and selecting UT faculty. UT leadership said it would respond to those demands in the coming weeks.

“We are aware of three petitions created by students and look forward to working with them and the UT community to create the best possible experience on our campus for Black students,” UT spokesperson J.B. Bird said in an email.

Like I said, good for them. My guess is UT will concede on a few things but not everything. I have a really hard time imagining that “The Eyes of Texas” will stop being the school song, but you never know. I hope some other school’s athletes are looking at this and getting their own ideas. The Chron has more.

Here comes high school football

Surely you didn’t think that Texas’ favorite sport would stay on the sidelines for long?

More focus will be on instruction, caution and care than nailing the perfect squat rep when University Interscholastic League athletic programs return to in-person strength and conditioning training Monday.

Teams won’t be crawling, walking and then running through coronavirus-altered training this summer. North Shore football coach Jon Kay said “we’re really going to be sitting first, then crawling and then walking and then jogging.”

They have no choice, considering the thorough safety precautions.

The UIL’s outlined requirements for in-person weight training and sport-specific skill instruction include a maximum of 25 percent capacity at indoor workout facilities. It means approximately 36 people — including coaches and athletes — will be allowed in Dickinson’s weight room. Masks and face coverings aren’t required by the UIL but will be by Dickinson ISD inside buildings.

Social-distancing measures of at least 6 feet are required, and workout stations will be at least 10 feet apart. That has required some interior redecoration in places like Cleveland, where football coach Jason Fiacco said he and his staff have spaced out stations inside the current weight room and marked spots where players should stand during workouts.

“It’s going to be unlike any other lifting program anybody has really every devised,” Fiacco said.

The UIL is allowing one staff member per 20 athletes during workouts. Hand-sanitizing and washing stations are required, and every weight and bar will be disinfected before each use.

[…]

Coaches must be strict “because we’ve got to get this right,” Dickinson football coach John Snelson said. Coaches believe football in the fall hangs in the balance, as does, more importantly, the health of the athletes.

Kay mentions the University of Alabama, where reports say at least five football players tested positive for COVID-19 after a player-led workout session last week.

Teams must adapt on the fly because, as Snelson said, “there is no playbook.” What happens if an athlete gets sick or someone a coach has been around is sick? What happens if a coach misses a session? What happens if participation numbers are larger than expected? All UIL teams regardless of sport can open training Monday, but football is usually a behemoth of a production. Snelson expects approximately 250 football players in Monday morning sessions for ninth through 12th grade alone.

The UIL requires participation to be optional. Snelson expects some parents will be eager for their son or daughter to be somewhere other than home. Some parents will be conservative, which is understandable.

I mean, we’re all just taking it on faith that this will be fine. If we had better testing and contact tracing, I’d feel more confidence. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be a spike in COVID cases as a result. I just hope – that word I have to keep using since we don’t have a plan – it isn’t as bad as I fear it could be.

Reopening 3.0

Who wants to go to a water park?

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a proclamation Tuesday announcing additional services and activities that can resume under his second wave of reopenings, allowing food courts in shopping malls to reopen immediately and giving the green light for water parks to begin operations with limited capacity starting Friday.

Recreational sports programs for adults can restart Sunday, though games and similar competitions may not recommence until June 15. Abbott also permitted driver education programs to resume operations immediately.

For food court dining areas that choose to reopen, Abbott is encouraging malls to designate one or more people who are responsible for enforcing social distancing and ensuring tables are cleaned and disinfected between uses.

[…]

While indoor and outdoor pools can operate at 25% occupancy, the governor’s previous directives have specifically said people should continue to avoid interactive amusement venues like water parks. Abbott was facing pressure, however, from a Houston-area water park that initially said last week that it would defy Abbott’s orders and reopen Saturday for Memorial Day weekend. Asked about that last week, Abbott told an Austin television station that his office was talking with operators to make sure they complied.

“They subject themselves to potential litigation as well as potential licensing-based issues if they fail to comply, and so it’s a potentially business-dangerous process for them to proceed forward knowing that they are subjecting themselves to litigation if they open up and anybody contracts COVID-19,” he said to KXAN.

The park ultimately decided not to open early, Community Impact Newspaper reported.

If you can maintain social distancing, swimming is fairly low risk. My experience at water parks is that you’d be fine on most of the rides, but the lines to get to the rides will be what puts you in jeopardy. I’m also not sure how financially viable a 25%-capacity water park is, but that’s their problem, and if Schlitterbahn thinks they can make it work, they’re in a better position than I am to judge. I don’t expect to be paying them a visit this year, that much I do know.

Also, too, outdoor sporting events are back on the menu.

In a new proclamation, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that fans will be allowed at outdoor professional sporting events in most Texas counties with limited occupancy, under a new expansion of his most recent wave of economic reopenings.

Starting Friday, all Texans counties — excluding Deaf Smith, El Paso, Moore, Potter and Randall counties — will be able to host in-person spectators for outdoor sports in venues as long as visitors are capped at 25% capacity. Leagues will first have to apply to — and receive approval from — the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Under the revised rule, fans are still banned from attending indoor sporting events in person. The rule does not address college or high school athletics.

[…]

The health agency’s protocols for adult recreational sports participants include a recommendation of wearing face masks during sporting events and practices, screening individuals for symptoms of COVID-19, and using and carrying hand sanitizers.

Spectators, meanwhile, are encouraged to avoid being in groups larger than 10, maintain a 6-foot distance from others when possible and wear cloth face coverings.

Regular COVID-19 testing is also recommended throughout the professional sports season.

I’d say the main effect of this is allowing recreational sports leagues to start up. High school and college sports are exempted, the NWSL will be playing only in Utah, and MLB is still a work in progress. I guess auto racing would be open to fans now as well. I will have a decision to make when the college football season starts, but I wasn’t expecting to see an Astros game any time soon except on TV. Do any of these new options appeal to you? Leave a comment and let us know.