Do you want college football in the fall? Wear a mask. Anywhere, everywhere, even when it feels weird.
You’ve heard that a lot lately, from various corners of the state and nation. Gov. Pete Ricketts again said so Thursday afternoon.
The wear-a-mask admonition is related to transmission of the coronavirus, and there is data that backs up the argument that a mask will reduce the number of positive COVID-19 tests wherever they’re consistently worn — via mandate or choice.
You’re not required to believe that data and, judging by my Facebook and Twitter feeds, some don’t. You may also believe the quick rise in positive tests in many states — including Florida, Texas and California — isn’t as big of a deal because a growing number of those positives are among younger people and those healthy enough to live either asymptomatically or have symptoms so mild they feel like allergies or one “off” day. You may think the pandemic is overblown, that masks don’t do much of anything, that people who say you should wear a mask are being judgmental and nosy, that as hospitalization rates skyrocket in some states, death rates will remain flat, and so on.
I’m not here to argue with you. If the doctors, public health officials, hospital administrators, media and political leaders can’t convince you, I won’t try. Not like that, anyway.
But I will say this: If you don’t wear a mask and the COVID-19 cases keep rising, or even stay at an alarmingly high rate three weeks from now, there probably isn’t going to be any college football whether you or anyone else thinks it’s safe or not.
The leaders running our states, athletic conferences, universities and the sport at large won’t think it’s safe and they’ll shut it down. Those leaders believe the science. They are worried. And they are in charge.
Exhibit A — Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott last week to the San Jose Mercury-News:
“I still want to be cautiously optimistic, but if there’s no change in society’s response and behavior, which results in the quick flattening of the curve and a decrease in the spread of the virus, that would lead to a much more pessimistic view about our campuses being able to open and our ability to play college sports.”
Let me simplify that: Either Americans mask up and make Scott and other leaders feel better fast, or the sport is likely done for the fall.
I cover the football industry and, as it relates to the media, I’m in it. I pay close attention.
Nebraska’s appetite for a football season is greater — and more sincere — than a lot of other places, regardless of the significant financial pain and job loss it may cause. Nebraska’s thoughtful way of bringing back players, and coach Scott Frost’s view going forward, reflects that. NU prepared and executed its plan like football was a chief priority among all of its leaders, from Frost up to Ricketts. Not many schools are like that.
But the pandemic, coupled with the last several years of heavy criticism lobbed at college football and quick rush of social media, has created an (understandable) stasis, a desire to punt until spring.
Why would the sport be safer in the spring?
For every reason but one — the spread of the coronavirus. Twenty to 24 football games in 2021? C’mon. That’d be brutal on a player’s body. Some players would opt out entirely — with good reason.
Does the “spring” season start in January? Early winter? Would the virus be more at bay then? A “Christmas vaccine” — if such a thing is even possible then — isn’t performing an overnight movie miracle for a January kickoff. The annual reliable flu shot doesn’t even do that.
Does the “spring” season actually start in the spring? Well, that’s mid-March, and that puts the end of the season at roughly mid-June, with bowl games in July. You’re not bringing back the sport one month later for 2021.
So punting to spring is really just punting and hoping the ball lands somewhere, anywhere, so things feel better than they do at the moment. We already lived in reticent, boycott-mulling times before COVID-19 wreaked havoc. The pandemic has only exacerbated, in all kinds of ways, a disdain for institutions. Be it for the ones that advise Americans to wear masks or the ones that say pro and collegiate sports have cultural meaning and purpose beyond the individual expression of athletes.
The people who control the sport you love want you to wear a mask anywhere and everywhere. You, fan, will have to blink first. You might as well blink now, put on the mask and hope you’ve done it fast enough. If the Ivy League announces its desire to postpone its football season to some other time, well, it won’t have much effect on you. The Ivy League bears no resemblance to major college football. But some of the people who run college football, and a few of the folks who cover it, have more in common with the sentiments of Ivy League presidents than they do with you.
Imagine walking down a bank to a river. There are stones in the river that make it possible to cross, but the water is moving so fast that they can barely be seen. The rapids make it hard — in reality and perception — to even make the attempt.
What if the water slowed down, though, so that the stones could be seen? There isn’t any guarantee someone won’t slip on a rock, but if the river looks crossable, it’s much more likely to be traversed.
The anecdotal threat of a football player being hospitalized will loom next spring even if there is a COVID-19 vaccine, just like it looms with the regular flu, over-strenuous workouts, concussions or car accidents. Sooner or later, as Frost suggested last week, you accept that threat — statistically proven to be minor among 18- to 24-year-olds — isolate and treat the worst cases and move forward.
At the moment, to political, educational and conference leaders, the threat doesn’t look anecdotal. It looks like rapids.
And Scott, in citing something as vast as “society’s response and behavior” — that’s 330 million people, understand — laid bare the real concern: It doesn’t feel like Americans are listening to the advice of experts.
Maybe you don’t think the leaders listening to the experts should be in charge. But they are, and if you want football, you may want to consider doing what they think you should.
While it’s possible a loose collection of schools untethered for a year from conference contracts might forge ahead, craft their own schedules and throw COVID-19 to the wind, that’s a much harder road than simply wearing the mask, slowing the rapids and restoring some optimism to the conversation.