College Football Is Still Recklessly Barreling Forward

A scene from the first college football game of the season. Photo: Butch Dill/Getty Images

This Thursday, if I want to, I can attend a college football game. I don’t need a special media pass or anything. To buy a ticket, I can just visit the website of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a school that, according to The New York Times, has the highest number of COVID-19 cases of any university in the country right now. (UAB disputes this claim in large font at the top of its website.) I can get in for $20 — and so can you. There are protocols in place for fans in the stands: I have to wear a mask, and I can’t tailgate before the game. (Though the school’s site emphasizes only “formal” tailgating is banned.) But the student section — drawn from that same pool of people who go to the university with the big COVID-19 problem — is “general admission.” Students are encouraged to “abide by social distancing measures.” But, again: It’s general admission. They can sit wherever they want.

If you’ve been only vaguely paying attention to college football over the past month — totally understandable; there’s, uh, quite a bit going on! — you’re forgiven for thinking that the sport wasn’t happening at all this year. It was only three weeks ago that the Big Ten and the Pac-12 announced they were postponing their seasons until the spring, inspiring all sorts of Republican politicians (including the president) to chime in under the #WeWantToPlay hashtag. Considering the myriad virus-related issues colleges across the country are navigating right now, it would seem that allowing students to play any sports at all — let alone football, a sport in which 22 people take only brief breaks from breathing heavily in opposing players’ faces in order to bash those faces in — would be the least of schools’ concerns right now.

And yet, three major college-football conferences, the SEC, ACC and Big 12, have decided that nothing is going to stop them from playing football, and so nothing has. Some smaller schools, like the University of Central Arkansas and Austin Peay State University — which played the first college football game of the season on Saturday night, a contest between two completely inconsequential teams that was nevertheless shown live on ESPN — have followed along, desperate, like all universities in 2020, for every bit of revenue they can muster. Nothing has happened since the Big Ten and Pac-12 postponed their seasons to make football on college campuses any safer, let alone to create the conditions where fans should be allowed in the stands. But so strong is college football’s hold on some parts of the country that these inconvenient facts simply don’t matter.

The devil-may-care attitude has led to several absurd situations, from the University of North Carolina sending all students home except for its college football players to Notre Dame announcing that on-campus activities will resume the week that the home football opener kicks off. This tension between the “football” part of schools and the “school” part of schools — along with the awkwardness of asking unpaid students to play football in the middle of a pandemic so that universities can collect television revenue — is one of the reasons the Big Ten and the Pac-12 pushed off their seasons in the first place. But what’s sort of remarkable about the fact that these schools are still playing isn’t just how little the “college” part figures into their plans; they’re being reckless even in a football sense.

Take that Austin Peay game for example. If you watched, you might have noticed that the Governors experienced multiple botched snaps during punts, with the ball flying over the punter’s head in a comical fashion. Don’t teams carry players, called long snappers, whose job it is to deliver the ball to the punter? Well, yes. But as The Athletic explained, all three players listed as playing this position on the Governors’ roster were scratched without explanation, leaving the job to a linebacker who (clearly) had never done it before. Austin Peay has studiously refused to answer questions about the health and status of its players, so barring a heretofore unremarked-upon sniper having taken out long snappers across the greater northern Tennessee area, it seems increasingly likely that all of them had COVID-19 — or at least had close contact with someone who did. But we don’t know for sure, because Austin Peay’s coach refused to report which players, or even how many, had tested positive on the Wednesday before Saturday’s game. There were just a bunch of players who, for no listed reason, were suddenly found unable to play a few days before the game. That sounds like the foundation for an outbreak; respected epidemiologist and sports injury expert Zachary Binney noted on Twitter that “If you have 3-5 players out at any one time for COVID you should assume you have an outbreak and shouldn’t play.” But Austin Peay played. There was television money to be made, after all. (Thankfully, no Central Arkansas players have tested positive in the aftermath. But the game was also only three days ago.)

Austin Peay is certainly not the lone offender here. A remarkable story by Ross Dellenger for Sports Illustrated details just how far some teams are willing to go to get their teams on the field. No conferences playing have yet put forth official criteria that must be met for a game to continue if there are positive tests before a game. But, amazingly, when the conferences do release their guidelines, they are not expected to treat the number of COVID-19 cases as the most important factor in determining whether games should continue. Rather, Dellenger reports, it will be all about how many bodies are available to put on the field in a particular week. He notes that the primary concern among coaches isn’t an outbreak at all; it’s whether or not other coaches will lie about the numbers for their own team’s advantage. “Aside from safety, the top concern among college leaders is gamesmanship among coaches,” Dellenger writes. “Will they manipulate numbers in order to play or not to play? Will they influence contact tracing or mandatory quarantine times?”

Let’s take a step back for a second. That is a major college football writer actively wondering whether coaches trying to maintain a competitive edge will pretend their teams have fewer cases than they do, or even forgo quarantine for players who had been in contact with infected teammates or opponents, instead putting those players on the field. And I agree with that college football writer’s concerns! I have been around college football coaches enough to know that these sorts of shenanigans should absolutely be a major worry! If you’re not sure coaches and administrators are capable of this sort of thing … well, Austin Peay didn’t warn anybody that all their long snappers were suddenly going to vanish, which is the sort of information one team usually reveals to another. That’s relatively minor, and they’re Austin Peay. But can you imagine what, say, Auburn will do?

Suffice it to say, this is not the method professional sports have used to get back on the field. The NBA, NHL, and WNBA all have bubbles, but even Major League Baseball, with its high-profile outbreaks, wasn’t sending players on the St. Louis Cardinals out to play three days after the team saw multiple positive tests. (MLB tightened its protocol in the wake of that hiccup; it’s even more stringent now.) The NFL has not announced its official protocols for postponement, but the league has had considerable success so far in keeping the virus away at training camp, and it’s fair to say that if there are multiple players who test positive on a Thursday before a Sunday game, they’re not going to play that Sunday. The reason for the sane level of caution: Those leagues have a union. They have people who are actively looking out for the health of their players and making sure they’re not put in a dangerous (well, more dangerous) position every Sunday. One can argue about the efficacy of the NFL Players Union, but they’re least advocates. They at least get to agree on a plan. There is no such thing in college football. Austin Peay played Central Arkansas on Saturday. Did anyone ask the Central Arkansas players how they felt going out to play a team that clearly had some sort of outbreak, at least among the long snapper community? If so, no one has heard about it. And there’s no one to speak for them.

The recklessness even extends to the policy around fans in the stands. Unlike in other major sports (save for the MLS, which has taken considerable heat for it), spectators will be allowed at limited capacity for college football games. But, as with everything else in the sport, each school is making its own decisions on this. Iowa State, located in a town with soaring COVID-10 cases, is allowing 40 percent capacity (25,000 people). As noted in a terrific ESPN piece by Kyle Bonagura, which used cellphone data to track the movements of people attending various college football games last year, this could be very dangerous for the community. (Though the danger is obviously at a different level than it would be in an indoor stadium.) College football games are, by design, events that are descended upon — calls to a football mecca that attract people from across vast geographic areas. And those who come bring their exposures with them, mix with others, and bring whatever they encounter back home. “I know people like to call them mass gatherings, but for an epidemiologist, these are mass-mixing events,“ Dr. Ali S. Khan, dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told Bonagura. You essentially come in, and a handful of people who may be infected get to mix with more individuals than they would otherwise mix with, who can then go back to multiple places.” There’s a reason cardboard fans have become the norm at every baseball game. But college football is going forth, regardless. There is no commissioner of college football; there is no union. There is no one to stop them.

When the Pac-12 postponed its football season on August 11, Southern California athletic director Mike Bohn — whose school lost tens of millions of dollars because of the decision — told ESPN, “”In my view, no reasonable-minded individual could have listened to the facts presented by our medical experts and believed that we had any other option at this time.” What has changed since August 11 is neither the virus nor its spread. Rather, we’ve seen an outbreak of non-“reasonable-minded individuals.” The impulse to close your eyes and wish the coronavirus away (while understandable) has been the source of a great deal of pain and suffering over the past five months in this country. Yet, college football seems to be forging ahead with this exact strategy. And, hey, you can still be a part of it — for just $20 a ticket. Plenty of good seats available. Let’s do it and be legends.

College Football Is Still Recklessly Barreling Forward