College Football Did This to Itself
Buckle up, college football fans, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. Any hour now, perhaps by the time you read this, this fall’s college football season will be cancelled at the Big Time level because of the country’s - read: federal and state government’s - failure to adequately fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, stick-to-sports-type Republicans are chiming in that the college football show must go on. President Donald Trump, Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) and The Intersection’s old friend Kelly Loeffler (R-Georgia) have all advocated for college football to be played, come hell or high water. And, by college football, they mean the big, revenue-generating type. When the minnows of the sport in Division II, Division III and smaller Division I conferences like the mid-major Mid-American Conference called it off, there was nary a peep from the likes of Trump, Sasse and Loeffler. But when the cash spigot that is the Power Five started to be jeopardized, suddenly these politicians are all insisting the sport be played. There’s a lot to unpack here, and it’s hard to ignore the specter of politics from most of it. Let’s start with this. The pandemic is not the fault of the college football community. However, the college football community certainly could have done more in the spring to get the country, especially the people living in the South and Midwest, to take it more seriously if it had advocated strongly and in unison for mask-wearing back in the spring. College football is huge in red states where the mostly Republican governors, who didn’t want to risk the Twitter ire of the president, downplayed the seriousness of the crisis. The response to the pandemic was politicized because of its impact on the economy, which is why there is no lack of irony in the same politicians who downplayed the virus now calling for college football to play this fall. By now, it’s accepted as scientific fact that we would have the virus more under control if the U.S. had been more aggressive about social distancing and mask-wearing during the early days. Imagine if, back in March, more of the coaching luminaries - not to mention conservative politicians - had gotten together in front of TV cameras and implored folks in those states to distance and wear a mask. If you live in a coastal urban area, it’s sometimes hard to realize how influential the words of college football coaches are in places where the sport is as much a religion as, well, religion. The opinions of head football coaches at big universities in SEC and Big 12 states carry a lot of weight. The general public and those states’ governors listen to these men. But instead of calls for action, there was denial. Oklahoma State coach and right-wing conspiracy advocate Mike Gundy said in early April that his players should return to campus to train because they are “young and healthy.” Even as it appeared the pandemic was worsening, and players who had returned to campuses were testing positive, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh said they should play on because: “It wasn’t caused by football or caused by sports. There’s no expert view right now that I’m aware of that sports is going to make that worse.” Dabo Swinney, who has led Clemson to a pair of national titles, was perhaps the most in denial. In April, he told local reporters: “My preference is let’s get to work and let’s go play. That’s the best-case scenario, and I think that’s what’s going to happen. I don’t have any doubt....I mean I have zero doubt that we’re going to be playing. The stands are going to be packed and the valley is going to be rocking. Zero doubt. That’s the only thought I have, right there. All that rest of the stuff, I don’t think about any of that.” Two months later, a third of his roster tested positive for COVID-19. Some coaches did weigh in, though often it was too little, too late. By the time Texas coach Tom Herman released a PSA in late June, the virus had gone from 6,000 cases in the state to almost 160,000 in a span of about 30 days. In fairness, some coaches, like Louisiana State’s Ed Orgeron, did speak out in in March, though he stopped short of calling for mask-wearing. Coincidentally, after a post-Mardi Gras surge, the COVID curve in Louisiana flattened in May and June. And then in July, he said the country “needs football” right now and that the coronavirus “could be handled.” Today, with the season on the brink of cancellation, Harbaugh called for college football this fall and his thoughts were echoed by Nebraska’s Scott Frost, who said, “the head coaches’ responsibility is to fight for what we want.” It’s all so self-serving. College football coaches like Orgeron, Swinney, Harbaugh and Frost all earn millions, and the teams they coach generate hundreds of millions for their universities and the local economies. They all have very vested interests in playing this fall. And, not for nothing, they make their fortunes mostly on the backs of Black and brown players. Would the likes of Trump, Sasse and Loeffler be so vocal in calling for the Power Five schools to continue playing if most of the players were from a demographic that usually supported their party? I suspect not. But despite the words of the politicians and the coaches, the virus just doesn’t care. The germs don’t differentiate between Big Ten schools and Division III programs. It doesn’t care that the economies of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Stillwater, Okla., will take a huge hit with no games to be played. Just like the politicians who ignored the seriousness of the pandemic, because they thought it would help keep the economy going and thus help their reelection chances, college football’s leaders ignored the seriousness of this moment and now will pay for it when there are no games this fall. This was all so preventable. Successful coaches thrive on preparation, paying attention to the minutest of details to gain an edge. But when faced with the biggest crisis of their professional careers, they failed to prepare. And now, as the cliche goes, they will prepare to fail.