In March, when college sports came to a grinding halt for the 2019-20 academic year, it was a capitulation to COVID-19 — but a wholly understandable one. The novel coronavirus had just started its brushfire burn through the United States, with tens or dozens of people infected, and individual cases were still enough to move the meter with the masses.
In the summer, when the Big Ten and Pac-12 (and dozens of other, smaller, poorer leagues) cancelled their football seasons out of an abundance of caution while the ACC, Big 12, and SEC maintained that they were going to plan on playing football until medical professionals told them that they couldn’t, we got different sorts of surrender — in the Big Ten and Pac-12, to discretion that was the better part of valor or the lowest cowardice, and in the ACC, Big 12, and SEC, to dire economic realities and cultural desires that made a death grip on the prospect of football a rational move.
(Also in the summer, college football’s hundreds of exploited players stood athwart the system, yelling “STOP,” and finally got their voices heard — but settled, by and large, for nebulous protections and assurances thereof when it came to coronavirus concerns, rather than the fuller compensation and partnership that they initially demanded. In the Big Ten, some of those players’ own parents undermined their efforts; nationally, unity turned out to mean mostly that players wanted to stand together against racial injustice and have a chance to continue playing football under the same exploitative conditions that they called out days or weeks prior. Notably, college football did not surrender to its laborers on these points, bowing only slightly.)
And now, in the fall, college football has once again surrendered — to a new status quo in which COVID-19 is an existential threat that can only be managed, not avoided. Most players who will suit up on Saturdays are spending their other six days of the week on or near campuses teeming with young people; those campuses have seen outbreaks only marginally mitigated by their universities’ protocols. Many players have contracted the coronavirus — Florida has reported 10 positive cases in the last two weeks, and that Gators appear to be handling this exceptionally well — and it’s hard to bet against the idea that many more will, especially as travel ramps up.
The development and implementation of rapid antigen testing — which will allow for results delivered with speed and at a tolerable cost — is being styled as a silver bullet, with Pac-12 players who publicly pressured their league to reverse course on its cancellation of football ludicrously claiming that the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Committee said the practice “reduces COVID-19 infectiousness by 100 percent,” a statistic so bold that you might expect it to appear in the Committee’s most recent findings, which it does not.
@gavinnewsom We have sat by for two weeks watching teams across the country play the game we love safely. Most schools have a fraction of the resources that our school and conference have provided to play safely. You are the only thing holding us back. Please #LetUsPlay . pic.twitter.com/au4JZ5PNbz— Kedon Slovis (@Kedonslovis) September 15, 2020
The management of the health of dozens of college football players is now an experiment for the organizations responsible for those bodies to conduct. The Big Ten almost admitted this much in its release on a return to play:
“Everyone associated with the Big Ten should be very proud of the groundbreaking steps that are now being taken to better protect the health and safety of the student-athletes and surrounding communities,” said Dr. Jim Borchers, Head Team Physician, The Ohio State University and co-chair of the Return to Competition Task Force medical subcommittee.
“The data we are going to collect from testing and the cardiac registry will provide major contributions for all 14 Big Ten institutions as they study COVID-19 and attempt to mitigate the spread of the disease among wider communities.”
This fall, college football players aren’t just the undercompensated laborers putting on shows on Saturdays while working 75-hour weeks from Monday to Friday — they’re lab rats, albeit consenting ones, chasing through the maze of a college football season for the cheese at the end of the labyrinth.
They probably could have said no to this en masse, could have called the bluffs of the people in suits bought with the money earned by the blood, sweat, and tears shed every Saturday and in every practice leading up to it. They did say no to this, more or less, when protocols were only slightly less slipshod, and got for their troubles assurances and a possibly hastened introduction of rapid testing — which, as powerful a tool as it may be, really only helps with surveillance and control of spread after players test positive, and does little to prevent college campuses from continuing to be Petri dishes, especially if those same tests are not administered to the entirety of a student body.
But they surrendered, too, like the leagues and fans themselves did — to inertia.
There’s a scene from the fifth and most recent season of Last Chance U, which follows the Laney College Eagles of Oakland, California, that has stuck with me since seeing it. Star cornerback Rejzohn Wright, recovering from the flu while his mother, Sadio Simon, sprays whole cans of something in the house as a guard against COVID-19, is packing up to leave for Oregon State, where he will team with his brother and play cornerback for the Beavers.
It’s March, it would seem, three months after the conclusion of Laney’s fall campaign. And yet, Earl Simon, Wright’s grandfather, comments that he’s ready for the season to start. Wright’s mother laments that “this is the most boring time of the year.” Simon explains why: “We ain’t got nothing to do. All we know is football. You know?”
I do know.
Football serves many, many purposes in American life, but its most crucial ones are marker — and spender — of time. Football arriving signals fall, the completion of another summer, the beginning of the end of the year, the hope for something new and great, the growing nearness of a holiday season that brings families and friends close. For so many of us, football also consumes our weekends, serves as a reward after grueling work weeks, allows us to indulge or imbibe or enjoy rather than enduring indignities.
A fall without football was unthinkable for so many for so long, and would have remained so had it come to pass. The NFL never truly countenanced the idea; college football only did so where it had to — because of financial reasons at lower levels — or until it became clear that the social consequences for not at least trying would have been greater than the ones for choosing the preservation of laborers’ welfare over the preservation of watchers’ leisure. The two men running for president made the football season a political, er, football; grifters assured the world that journalists reporting on the seemingly long odds against a totally safe and sane football season were actually advocating against the sport they love.
We all surrendered to the idea that this has to happen — that football, a game and an industry, has the inalienable right to exist — a long time ago, but we surrendered to the sport as it surrendered to realities this year. We ended up right near where we would have been without a virus killing hundreds of thousands of Americans after all; all the while, the sport gave up the pretense of being able to stop the virus, or even trying, opting for mitigation instead of annihilation.
We could have fought for something new, something different, something else. Players could have linked arms and recognized the dizzying injustices involved in playing a sport semi-professionally in a pandemic; fans could have vocally insisted that that stand, and not a 23-20 win in the Outback Bowl, was what they wanted from this year.
We surrendered instead. All of us.
Oxford defines a foofaraw as “a great deal of fuss or attention given to a minor matter.” On this day, with major college football one day away from being in full swing, it sure feels like all the attention given to how many obstacles were in the way of football perpetuating itself this fall was a foofaraw, doesn’t it?
The Foofaraw will run on Fridays this fall.