Don’t Just Blame COVID-19 for College Football’s Lost Season

President Trump is going to need to find a safer space to avoid the boobirds this fall. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

A little more than a month ago, the NCAA sent out what it called a “comprehensive” set of COVID-19-related “recommendations” outlining “daily self-help checks” and “testing within 72 hours of competition for high contact risk sports.” This was in mid-July, back when a resurgence of the coronavirus was underway in Texas, Florida, Georgia, and other Sun Belt states — but when you could still imagine a world where college football could conceivably happen in 2020. The recommendations also included wearing face coverings and adhering to “public health standards set by their local communities,” and they warned, “if there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic.”

A couple of their other recommendations came with a caveat. As the Athletic’s indispensable Nicole Auerbach reported at the time, “the NCAA noted a lack of federal guidance on certain practices and a lack of a national contact tracing program hindered its ability to provide its own recommendations.” Which is to say: If you’re looking for a reason why college sports might not come back, one might consider pointing first at the White House.

Now, with college football on the brink, and President Trump — who famously sees college-football stadiums as his safe space — trying to leverage the crisis to his political benefit on Twitter, it is worth asking: How much of this is Trump’s fault? And how much of this is the sport’s inherent inequities catching up with it? And how did this become a partisan issue? The irony of Donald Trump and his loyalists weighing in on this is rich, since he is one of the reasons there likely won’t be a college-football season this year, as is the backward way colleges and many college-football fans have been responding to the pandemic.

In March and April, when the economy shut down, collegiate spring sports seasons and the NCAA basketball tournaments were canceled, but college football — the financial lifeblood of just not college athletics but in many cases colleges themselves — felt insulated. There were still months to go before the season began, and the sport, taking a cue from the NFL, continued to act as though everything would remain on schedule. Schools canceled spring practices and had to recruit via Zoom, but otherwise there was no reason to adjust any tailgating plans. There was reason to believe the world could continue on as normal, eventually. We were all so young and innocent in March.

Then Trump began tweeting about liberating Michigan from lockdown, and the political debate shifted from controlling the virus to reopening the economy. The lockdown backlash happened first in places Trump had the most loyalist governors, which, perhaps not coincidentally, are also places where college football is most popular and most important. Governors like Brian Kemp in Georgia, where I live, and Ron DeSantis in Florida began to loosen lockdown restrictions earlier than public-health experts advised, assuming that what worked in New York wouldn’t be necessary in their states. Kemp, in particular, was recklessly aggressive with reopening, proceeding with what a devastating piece in The Atlantic by Amanda Mull called “Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice.” In a sane world, Mull’s warning would lead to self-reflection and caution. Instead, the response here within Georgia was revulsion, constant harassment of Mull for being “alarmist,” and a whole bunch of tweets that were about to age very, very poorly.

It has become fashionable among a certain segment of college-football fans — the sort who live in the South, Texas, and parts of the Midwest; despise “the Media”; and rely on Facebook for epidemiological advice — to treat those who have warned about the coronavirus and its short- and long-term health effects as alarmists who are just hyping the virus as a way to finally get rid of President Trump. (The official term for these people is “coronabros,” I’m consistently informed on Twitter.) This denialism has allowed many to justify their own selfish behavior (like, I can confirm, neglecting to wear a mask at the Publix) as right and sane, and to safely pretend that football will go on as normal. What this denialism does not do, alas, is slow the spread of COVID-19 or limit the pandemic’s consequences.

Thus, when the coronavirus surged across the Sun Belt, colleges — who had been crossing their fingers that America would overcome the inaction of the federal government, and that the virus would disappear enough for 40,000 or so fans to pack the stands and keep everyone’s television contracts intact — ran into the same reality America’s schools (and Major League Baseball, for that matter) are running into: It is nearly impossible for a large number of people to do anything in public right now, particularly in the states in college football’s footprint, without a bunch of people getting the coronavirus. The surge also forced some governors, even those loyal to Trump like Kemp, to start to encourage (rather than universally require) their citizens to wear masks — often explicitly citing the return of college football as a motivating factor.

“I know that I want to see college football in the fall,” Mississippi governor Tate Reeves said last week. “The best way for that to occur is for us all to recognize that wearing a mask — as irritating as it can be, and I promise you I hate it more than anybody watching today — it is critical.”

Last week was also when the Big Ten released a full season schedule and the SEC announced the addition of two games to its 2020 schedule. That means that just a week ago, conferences were still trying to play college football this year. But then players started speaking up. A collection of Pac-12 players, including a pair of all-Americans, wrote a letter in the Players’ Tribune with a list of demands they wanted met in order to play the upcoming season; many Big Ten players followed suit. In a leaked call between SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and many SEC players, one league official flat-out admitted that “there will be outbreaks.” On Monday, ESPN reported that Big Ten administrators were concerned about how five players have developed myocarditis as a result of COVID-19 and that it “made the bar higher” for a return to play this fall. They should be concerned — myocarditis is a rare but serious side effect of COVID-19 — but that danger is certainly not something the conference just discovered in the last five days; Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, as just one example, is already sitting out the MLB season because of his own COVID-19-linked myocarditis diagnosis.

College football has survived many things, and many have been willing to keep playing amid the pandemic, but the one thing it can’t survive is a united front of players — even ones without a union who are unpaid in a sport that brings in billions of dollars a year. Meeting the players’ COVID-19-safety demands would be impossible, and colleges know it. In a perfect world, schools would bubble their teams like the NBA has, making sure players and personnel don’t go anywhere but to the practice fields, the games, and their homes. But they can’t do that because a bubble-bound season would keep players away from class, and many schools, including here in Georgia, are opening for in-person instruction. And the sanctioned skipping of class would shatter the illusion that keeps college sports alive in the first place: that these players are students, not professional athletes, and thus not able to be paid for the revenue they produce.

The coronavirus has been ravaging the country, and college football still planned on playing through. But once players started asking for some basic rights and safety procedures, the sport essentially shut down within a week.

That’s why it’s so rich to see Trump and his Republican allies suddenly say they side with the players, co-opt the #WeWantToPlay hashtag, and demand their voices to be heard. Oh, sure, now they want the players’ voices heard, when it means college football might be taken away; but not when these players were being mocked for wanting to unionize or make money off their likenesses. College football remains what it has been since television-rights fees exploded and made it a billion-dollar business: a highly entertaining sport that’s a perfect grift for opportunists to take advantage of the people who play it — and use whatever argument they can to justify that.

It is not impossible that college football figures out some way to proceed this year. Early reports that the Big Ten had voted to cancel its season have been refuted, and SEC commissioner Sankey tweeted that he has not given up on playing. With this much money involved, and with colleges and universities in such desperate need of every penny of it, if there’s a way to figure something out, they will. But there may not be a way. MLB and the NFL, also bubbleless, are having a hard enough time, and they have a players union and universally agreed-upon protocols. College football has neither. And even if the sport can get on the field, it’s tough to see how they’d stay on it. An outbreak like what has happened with the Miami Marlins or the St. Louis Cardinals would wipe out a fifth of the Big Ten’s schedule, at a minimum. And college-football teams have three times as many players on the roster as baseball teams do.

So it might just be an impossible haul, and it brings me no joy to say that. I love college football, even with all its moral failings. College-football Saturdays in a town like Athens, where I live, can be absolutely joyous. (Particularly with a lot of bourbon.) But the failings of college football go beyond just the coronavirus and this country’s hapless attempts to handle it. This sport has deep, corrosive structural issues, and it’s possible that even if Trump had contained this virus in the early stages, college football would still be having trouble getting on the field this year without a vaccine. But the stubbornness that binds people to Trump — and against basic science — is the same stubbornness that led college-football fans to pretend this year could go on whether they wore a mask to the grocery store or not. Many of the people who desperately want college football on their televisions this fall are the same people who have been downplaying this virus for months and whose behavior has led to the surge that’s now keeping their favorite game off the field.

Trump and his supporters want college football back, but now it’s too late. The opportunity to save the season may have passed. That is on them, but it is also on the structure of college football, the culture of the sport, and the pigheadedness of so many of the people who claim to love it most. The place to look on Saturdays this fall when they are wondering why there is no game to watch — that place is the mirror.

Don’t Just Blame COVID-19 for College Football’s Lost Season