Opinion: College football in a season of COVID-19 and politics

This fall, as the pandemic continues, a fearsome new hazard for politicians is likely to bubble up between the hedges and elsewhere: The accusation of being “soft” on college football.

Two conferences within the Power Five — the Big Ten and Pac-12 — have canceled their fall schedules out of concern over the coronavirus. Three conferences say they will proceed with reduced calendars — the ACC, the Big 12 and the SEC.

“You look at the areas where they’ve decided to play football, and the areas where they’re not going to play football, and I think it’s a political decision,” Bulldog great Herschel Walker noted a few days ago, underlining the latest political divide in America.

Consider the Southeastern Conference, which has 14 university members in 11 states. Nine of those states have Republican governors. By tradition in the South, every other fall, politics and college football overlap in giant Saturday tailgate parties. (Which have now been banned at the University of Alabama — to help secure the season.)

Southern shielding of college football has a pandemic precedent. Consider the outrage expressed by some — not all — conservative evangelicals when Georgia and other states issued orders to reduce the size of their worship services or close their doors.

Enthusiastic hymn-singing by large crowds in closed spaces and in close quarters resulted in several churches being declared viral hot spots this spring.

College football congregations are much larger and far louder. But adherents also describe their passion for the sport in religious terms. As he praised the SEC decision to push forward with a truncated football season, Gov. Brian Kemp called college football a “sacred tradition” — albeit one with a much larger collection plate.

Billions of dollars and entire local economies are at stake.

“Sending 38,000 kids home in March has been felt dramatically in the community. It hit us right between the eyes,” said Doc Eldridge, 67, a former mayor of Athens and ex-president and CEO of the local chamber of commerce.

“We’re just hoping [students] come back and use their heads. Athens is a mandatory mask community,” Eldridge said. “We need a football season in Athens for our economy, for our spirit, for our attitude. For all of the above.”

Something that important is bound to enter the political conversation. It already has in Alabama, where former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville has mounted a GOP challenge to U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat.

“You know, college football is the lifeblood of the South, and allowing teams to play this season will bring a much-needed sense of calm to these strange times,” Tuberville said in a video posted on social media. “With proper medical supervision, college players are likely safer on the field than they are if they’re sent home.”

In an MSNBC interview, Jones pronounced himself “a huge college football fan.”

Jones also said this: “I want to make sure that folks are following the science. I believe that every conference is looking at that…and they’re going to make a decision that they believe is in the best interest of the players, the coaches, the fans and the university.”

That kind of qualification was too much for the Tuberville campaign — which chided the Democrat for failing “to stand with the beliefs and desires that most Alabamians hold.”

In other words, soft on football.

In our state, the Georgia-Georgia Tech game has already fallen victim to the virus. UGA has announced a ticket plan that would limit Sanford Stadium to roughly a quarter of its 92,746-seat capacity. The first home game in an all-conference schedule will be Oct. 3, against Auburn.

Georgia Republicans have been quick to rally behind the pigskin. For instance, U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, whose seat is up for grabs in November, latched onto the issue ahead of President Donald Trump.

“College universities and athletic conferences need to put politics aside and come together to find a way to safely play college football this season,” she wrote in a Tweet.

In Georgia, college football fans lean Republican. (We reached out to the Democratic campaign of the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who declined to comment.)

But there is another reason for GOP candidates to pay close attention to college gridirons. In 1920, in the aftermath of the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, Republican Warren G. Harding rode to the White House on a promise to return the country to “normalcy.”

A century later, voters are already hungry for a taste of normal, and will be more so in November. College football can provide that. The risk is that the virus isn’t done with us. And should the college football season collapse in a Republican-controlled state, who will get the blame?

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, Loeffler’s top GOP rival in that Senate contest, on Thursday decided that college presidents will fill that bill. “If unelected presidents are going to cancel the football season — over the objections of players and parents, no less — publicly state the vote and take the heat,” Collins wrote via Twitter.

A day earlier I had talked to Chip Lake, a consultant for the Collins campaign — who has temporarily shelved the college football podcast he produces as a hobby each fall. He predicted that a GOP base deprived of college football would be an angry beast.

“It’s a way of life in the South. If the coronavirus gets college football too, well, Katy bar the door. It’s the one last thing that hasn’t fallen victim to the virus. And it might,” Lake said.

He had just moved his freshman kid into a dormitory at Kennesaw State University. “I find it hard to believe we can pack kids into dormitories like sardines, we can play intramural sports, but it’s not safe enough to play college football. I don’t think that’s going to fly,” Lake said.

Speaking of dormitory sardines: It is possible that, as important as it might be culturally and politically, the debate over college football is missing the forest for the trees. The NBA and other pro sports have proven – so far – that pandemic bubbles of isolation can work. But college athletes swim in a student body politic that — again, so far — isn’t fond of masking or keeping its distance.

In a radio interview this week, Governor Kemp alluded to the situation.

“The students that are going back to campus right now — they’ve got to stop having these large, isolated off-campus or on-campus gatherings that are helping create the spread,” Kemp said. “We’ve got to also have a discussion about, if those things are happening, sending those kids back home to their communities is just going to further the spread.”

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