It has been sad to read news over the past few days that the entire college football season, which had been scheduled to start next month, was on the brink of collapse and, as of this writing, was still in limbo. But it was also frustrating to see the reactions from some people suggesting the reporters who were reporting on the situation and have been covering the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the sports world were getting what they “wanted.”
I don’t believe that anyone who follows and watches the sport wants to see a fall without college football, especially in the South. As a lifelong Georgia fan, I for one have been looking forward to seeing which one of the numerous quarterbacks on the team’s 2020 roster will step up and seize the position and whether the Bulldogs can finally move past their Alabama woes and get over the hump of winning a national championship for the first time in 40 years.
None of the involved parties — players, coaches, institutions, athletic conferences, media or fans — will stand to take a victory from a lost autumn. I can certainly understand why the majority of players and coaches want to play this season and I would love for them to have that chance. But at some point, we also have to have a grasp on the reality that this was always going to be a steep, uphill climb.
My thinking all along has been that the Power Five football conferences would at least start their seasons but would be hard-pressed to finish as the chances of infections spreading throughout teams would increase as teams began full-contact practices and games and the players (not in a bubble like the NBA for instance) mixed with the general student population in classes and at house parties and bars. You then have the economics to consider of what very little, if any, attendance at games would mean for athletic departments, conferences and businesses like those in downtown Athens. There is no responsible way that SEC stadiums can fill up with close to 100,000 people this year, so you also have to consider what the alienating effect of picking and choosing who gets to sit in Sanford Stadium and watch games this fall would be across this state.
Above all else there is the health and safety of players to consider, and COVID-19 throws a massive monkey wrench into the middle of what was already an inherently risky sport. The reporting I’ve read indicates there is an increased concern over the college and athletic directors and presidents over what doctors say is emerging evidence that the virus is having a severe impact on the hearts of younger, otherwise healthy people, including athletes. That no doubt has played a heavy part in discussions amongst the various conferences about what to do this fall. And you would think it has to eventually factor into whatever the Georgia High School Association decides to do about its fall sports season, which is already underway for softball and volleyball. It would seem to require some mental gymnastics to justify postponing one-act play to the spring because of aerosol transmission and singing but continuing on with plans for football, a full-contact sport, to start Sept. 4 and just eliminate preseason scrimmages. It feels more like a decision intended to kick the can further down the road, but it will ultimately only hurt the kids worse if you start the year and then yank the rug from under them.
And that’s also what we’ve been seeing at the college level in the past few weeks. While I would love to see some kind of season pulled off, it has seemed like less a question of what decision will get made, but one of who will step up and make the inevitable decision and when.
This discussion about sports also relates back to the core problems we’re facing as a society in trying to get a grip on this pandemic.
It’s not an issue of what we want, because I’m fairly confident that the vast majority of us want the same thing — a return to some semblance of “normal” and stability in our lives and throughout our communities. But it is or should be an issue of what it will take from all of us to get to that point more quickly.
And at the end of the day, we’re all having these conversations about when all schools are going to open to in-person instruction or whether there are going to be football Saturdays in Athens this fall because of a stunning lack of leadership at the state and federal levels — and the lack of buy-in from many in the general public that still exists five months after the pandemic took hold in the U.S. And neither one of those can be sugarcoated.
A letter to the editor in this week’s edition of The Barrow News-Journal suggests that I haven’t fully considered the sacrifices that many people have already made and that most people are following the public health guidance. As I’ve written before, as someone who has taken a major financial hit from this crisis and is now faced with starting off the school year by helping facilitate my child’s kindergarten education for several hours every day (before starting on my own full work day at a demanding job), I understand perfectly the plight of working families and I recognize the negative effects of kids not being in school, or students not getting the chance to participate in character-building sports and other extra-curricular activities. As someone whose parents haven’t seen their grandson in five months, and who has a grandmother-in-law in a long-term care facility away from her family since March, I understand the sense of utter loneliness that people, especially the elderly, must feel.
But instead of, for instance, yelling at the local school board about making the no-win decision not to bring kids back into school buildings, I’m asking why our elected leadership, and the people they in turn appoint, haven’t gotten a better handle on stemming the spread by now and why adjustments haven’t been made amid worsening circumstances that have led to said no-win decisions. Why aren't we closer to where New Zealand is now, resuming our lives in full?
I really do not care what political party letter is next to Brian Kemp’s name. It is not a partisan statement to point out that he was one of the last governors to enact tougher restrictions as a result of the pandemic and one of the first to lift them when it looked like the numbers were improving. It is also not a partisan statement to point out that, as the numbers have worsened throughout the summer, there has not been a corresponding tightening of restrictions. In sports terminology, if the quarterback keeps getting sacked and you can’t get the run game going, some adjustments may be needed on the offensive line. Maybe different messaging is needed.
From a federal perspective, it’s not a partisan statement to point out what’s documented on camera and his very own Twitter account: President Trump has consistently sent mixed and misleading messages on the virus while badgering those on his very own coronavirus task force when they say that this pandemic is very real and that there is still widespread transmission throughout communities. It can give one whiplash, and none of us benefit from the confusion.
With the influence of many prominent voices, there are still too many people who defiantly flout precautions that are intended to keep more people safe. The dismissal by some of the severity of the virus has encouraged reckless behavior and decisions, leading to more sickness and death that could have been avoided.
A reoccurring statement from people trying anything they can to save the college football season is that the players have put in too much hard work to have it taken away. So how many of us are willing to stand up and say that a large number of those who have died from COVID-19 had too many people counting and depending on them and had too much life left to live to be killed due to inaction and incompetence?
This can’t be what any of us want. So what can we do about it?
Sports can provide many benefits — not just boosting local economies or bringing communities together on a Friday night, but the life lessons they teach young people. I played baseball all the way up through high school, and though I knew I was never going to make it to the pros, I did benefit emotionally and personally from playing the game in a team-competition setting all those years.
One of the biggest lessons my coaches drilled into my head and the heads of my teammates was accountability to and for each other. In my years of playing and covering sports, I’ve often heard the phrase, “You’re only as strong as your weakest link.”
I hope that is something people can take to heart in this moment in time if they haven’t already. We all should be on the same team of wanting to defeat COVID-19, but we are going to have to be willing to do our part to make more sacrifices and hold our decision-makers accountable if we want to reach that goal faster.
It’s not about “me.” It’s about “we.”