If you are one who is paying close attention to the COVID-19 pandemic but have little use for big-time organized sports in this country, I urge you to pay attention to this. The 2020 college football season — slated to start within weeks — is on the verge of being canceled. If there is no fall football this year, the effect will be seismic not just in the realm of sports, but across the entire social and political landscape.
The question of restarting the major U.S. sports leagues began approximately 19 seconds after the National Basketball Association (NBA) postponed its season on March 11, right on the verge of the playoffs. A day later, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) canceled its wildly popular “March Madness” basketball championship festival.
Those decisions had a cascade effect, not only within the realm of sports but throughout the nation at large. Oh, so this is actually serious, went the revelation for millions, and in time, the hard-hit eastern portion of the country got COVID under some semblance of control as our states locked down and urged us to wear masks and keep our distance.
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The NBA’s postponed season and the NCAA’s lost tournament did not motivate this all on their own, but those decisions were a large awareness bomb that went off just when the country needed it to.
Donald Trump and his cohort of wreckers were no help in this, of course. By the end of that same bleak and lethal month, Trump was pushing hard to reopen basically everything that had been closed for safety reasons. Remember when he said the pandemic would be gone by Easter? Isn’t that quaint?
Trump is saying exactly the same type of things today about college football, pushed by the headwinds of the culture war he has stoked, and aided by mouthpieces in the sports media who want to get back to the business of printing money at the ballpark and the radio station, and never mind the body count.
At present, recently restarted MLB games are getting canceled left and right as a mess of blooming COVID infections across multiple teams has brought the season to the verge of collapse. The NBA, playing within a “bubble” at an Orlando resort complex, appears to have found an effective formula for keeping players safe while getting the games in: Everyone in the “bubble” stays there, upon pain of suspensions and fines.
The National Hockey League (NHL) is doing its own “bubbles” in Edmonton and Toronto, and with that league’s playoffs underway, no new COVID cases have been reported among players or staff; the “bubble” thing clearly works if done right. The National Football League (NFL) is marching resolutely toward the opening of its season with no planned “bubble,” and dozens of players have opted out for the year rather than risk infection.
And then there is the NCAA college football season just around the corner, and the news report on Sunday that shook this astonishingly popular and beloved institution to its foundations.
“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,” reported the all-sports network ESPN.
Smaller college football divisions had already canceled their seasons, but if the Power Five called off the year, it would be an earthquake that would shake the entire game. That quake struck today, when the Big 10 division, one of the Power Five, announced they were canceling football for the 2020 season. Big 10 schools include Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Kansas and Michigan State.
If the Power Five call their seasons off, it will be a billion-dollar decision that will affect not only the players and the schools, but the cities and towns that rely on game-day revenues in the same way beach towns depend on the summer tourists. If there are sharks in the water, the financial hit can be enormous, and there are COVID sharks in the waters around these college towns.
The Power Five divisions are proceeding with due and deliberate caution. Thanks to Trump and people of his ilk, restarting games has become a part of the culture wars right alongside wearing masks and reopening schools. Those five divisions are looking past that, and even past the money they stand to lose in a canceled season, because the threat is bigger than any Trumpian bluster ever could be. “Big Ten officials aren’t considering postponement because they’re hesitant or weak,” writes Sally Jenkins for The Washington Post. “They’re doing the math.”
It isn’t just that football — with its huddles, close quarters, blood, sweat, spit-flecked screaming and vicious bodily contact during colder and drier months — is the ultimate COVID breeding ground. Those players will be on college campuses teeming with students coming from all points on the compass. If the COVID pattern holds, there will almost certainly be campus COVID spikes all across the country by Thanksgiving.
There is also an increasing body of scientific evidence that COVID can do permanent damage to the heart, not just of athletes, but everyone who may become infected. Eduardo Rodriguez, a starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, became infected with COVID-19. Rodriguez recovered, but doctors discovered he had developed myocarditis, a dangerous heart condition, and he had to shut it down for the rest of the season. Rodriguez may never play again.
“Research raises the possibility that athletes who recover from covid-19 may face dire or lasting heart complications,” reports Adam Kilgore for the Post, “and medical experts have urged cardiac screening for athletes returning to play after contracting the virus.”
You better believe the Power Five divisions are taking these heart damage reports deeply seriously, if for no other reason than they are worried about getting sued by some third-string punter with a ruined heart who caught COVID at practice because the league didn’t shut down the season.
Thousands of such lawsuits could come flying through the window if college football is allowed to play and the worst comes to pass. Ask yourself: Since this pandemic began, when has the worst not come to pass?
The cultural, medical and political impact of a canceled college football season cannot be understated. College football sits at the right hand of God exactly, precisely in many of the regions of this country where COVID precautions are either not being taken seriously or are being actively flouted.
People in those places are not listening to the scientists warning them of danger… but if college ball gets tossed, that will get their attention in a huge hurry. It will be like the NBA and NCAA’s decision back in March, but more impactful by an order of magnitude. There are millions of people who may scoff at science, but will be deeply affected if Alabama v. Auburn and Ohio State v. Michigan do not happen this year. It will make an indelible mark.
This is not a reason in and of itself to cancel the season; those reasons already exist by the score. If, however, losing college ball this year makes even a percentage of the science-resistant population finally take this thing seriously, we might make it to next spring without 500,000 new COVID deaths to contend with.
The U.S. endured one million new infections in 17 days last month, and this winter will be cruel almost beyond description if immediate steps are not taken to rein this pandemic in. Trump and his people can and will yell themselves hoarse, but if more of us are alive in May because college ball got benched, that would be the biggest win of all.
UPDATE 7:30 pm ET: “According to Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic, the conference is aware of at least 10 players who have the rare heart condition myocarditis, which reportedly has a high prevalence in people who have had COVID-19. This is considered an ‘alarmingly high number’ of the rare condition caused by viruses and it has caused decision-makers across college athletics to reconsider their views, per Auerbach.” — Bleacher Report
The Pac-12, another Power Five division, has also cancelled its fall 2020 football season.