Throughout this pandemic year, there has been a perfectly natural tendency for Americans to seek out and preserve certain “normal” habits and traditions critical to their sense of well-being, or even their sanity. For some, it’s been maintaining worship services, or finding ways to stay in touch with friends and family, or cultivating new or lost culinary and gardening skills.
But where I am from, in the Deep South, the resumption of college football has taken on huge freight as a symbol of continuity. That’s been true for those sheltering in their homes in sober fear of COVID-19. But it’s been even more important to pandemic deniers and minimizers and “reopeners” who view bans on huge crowds of cheering fans as socialist overreach. The political implications of the Southeastern Conference’s crucial role in “saving” the 2020 college-football season have never been far from the surface, as one well-known politicizing “sportswriter” has attested:
College football, of course, is particularly beloved to the middle-class southern white people who lean heavily conservative in their cultural views and Republican in their political habits. The SEC’s “reopening” efforts were materially aided by the fact that its 14 member institutions are located in 11 states that in 2016 voted for Donald Trump, who has made “reopening” a major reelection theme; all 11 have Republican-controlled legislatures, and nine have Republican governors. In a very real sense, the 2020 SEC football season was politicized before it began, despite the sometimes feeble efforts of coaches and boosters to hide behind the eagerness of players (a strong majority of whom are Black) to compete.
Now, all of a sudden, college football in the South is as imperiled as the COVID-19 denial cause. At least two SEC games this weekend are being postponed to the one open date that exists in the cramped conference schedule because not enough players are available to meet minimum standards, either because they have tested positive or have been exposed to those who have tested positive. But here’s the blow that is shaking the sport to its roots, as reported by ESPN:
Alabama football coach Nick Saban tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, and he is self-isolating at home while continuing to oversee his team’s practices via Zoom.
Athletic director Greg Byrne also tested positive on Wednesday.
If you aren’t a college-football fan, you may not know this, but the 68-year-old Saban is generally regarded as the greatest coach ever. His teams have won six national championships and eight SEC championships. Six of his former assistants are major-college head coaches, five of them in the SEC. He hasn’t entirely made Alabama fans forget their previous coaching god Paul “Bear” Bryant, but that may just be a matter of time and perspective.
Saban’s positive test, moreover, may hit conservative Southerners even harder than Trump’s did earlier this month. Even Trump’s most avid fans recognize that he was tempting fate in his reckless disregard for minimal safety precautions; to some extent, it was a deliberate exhibition of macho “courage,” just like his subsequent chest-thumping claims that he conquered the virus almost overnight.
But Saban, in keeping with his coaching ethos of total attention to detail (his system is known as the Process), has been exemplary in his health precautions. As early as March, he recorded a public-service announcement encouraging Alabamans to wear masks and practice social distancing. In May, he made another recording, using his reputation as a disciplinarian to chide the team’s mascot, Al the Elephant, for not wearing a mask over his costume trunk:
Unlike most of his peers, Saban has never once been seen on the practice field or the sideline without a mask. He instituted daily testing of players long before that happened at other schools (most SEC teams still just test three times a week). But as he acknowledged after announcing his positive test results, there’s only so much you can do if your team has to leave its bubble to play games on the road:
“I’m not really concerned that much about my health, but you never know,” Saban said. “Look, I basically feel like when we’re in our own personal bubble here, everybody is in a much safer place. I think as soon as you travel, you get exposed to a lot more things and a lot more people.”
If Nick Saban isn’t safe, who is? That question is bound to haunt some Alabamans otherwise inclined by ideology and partisan tribalism to regard COVID-19 as a sort of national speed bump on the road to American Greatness.
Like most Republican-governed states, particularly in the South, Alabama has lurched back and forth between a laissez-faire attitude toward pandemic precautions and hasty and half-hearted lockdown measures. The state has kept in place a mask order (in part to protect poll workers on November 3), but bars, restaurants, and beaches are open. It’s among the states with stable case statistics and occasional spikes. Politically, though, this very Trumpy state exemplifies to an extreme degree a regional tendency to exhibit skepticism about pandemic measures. The GOP’s Senate nominee in Alabama’s marquee political contest this year is former Saban rival Tommy Tuberville (the rare coach, in fact, who has a winning record against him). Tuberville has twice said publicly that he “doesn’t have a clue” about what to do about COVID-19 (in line with his usual self-presentation as an amiable good ol’ boy who isn’t troubled with a lot of deep thoughts), while expressing the abiding faith in Donald Trump that is his North Star. Even as Saban’s football team maintained its bubble, the university it represents had a huge spike in student COVID-19 cases when it reopened in August.
It’s unclear at this point what Saban’s COVID-19 diagnosis will represent in terms of the SEC or college football generally, even assuming he never becomes dangerously ill (he is currently asymptomatic). So far, there’s been no outbreak among Saban’s players, and while the rules will keep him from involvement, his second-ranked team is planning to take the field Saturday against third-ranked Georgia in Tuscaloosa, with assistant Steve Sarkisian in charge. But if any more games are postponed or canceled, the whole SEC season could unravel — and, with it, the entire sport in which the SEC plays such a prominent role. Pushed by fans, players, politicians, and dollar-hungry administrators, colleges (now including former holdouts in the Big Ten and Pac-12, which are planning delayed 2020 seasons) have engaged in a big gamble by moving ahead with games that involve inherently risky behaviors. It could all still blow up on them.
As Saban has shown, there’s no foolproof Process for victory over COVID-19, and those who remain in denial about this pandemic need to hear the whistle and stop playing games with it. The SEC’s branded slogan is “It Just Means More,” a tribute to the region’s passion for college sports and, most of all, football. Maybe Coach Saban’s diagnosis will ultimately turn heads and save lives.