With college football and COVID, there’s no middle ground

It’s often said that a crisis brings out the best in people. This crisis has, alas, brought out the worst in our institutions, which at last check are populated by people. I’m willing to bet we could have a spirited debate over the word I just used. “Crisis?” some among us might say. “This isn’t a crisis! This is just the flu! Nobody’s dying from this!”

(Well, nobody except those 169,000 Americans who have died from it, and please don’t tell me about the guy who crashed his motorcycle in Florida. I’ve head it a dozen times.)

If we asked any level of government, “What’s your grand plan to combat COVID-19?”, answers would wobble all over creation. Should we test more? (Our president suggested we’d be better off testing less. His advisers said he was kidding. He then said he never kids.) Should schools open for in-person instruction? Is it kind of OK if children get sick? (Hard to believe that’s a real question, but somehow it is.) Should masks be required in public places? Are masks a violation of civil liberties?

It’s little wonder the absence of trickle-down consensus has led to rampant confusion at all levels of society. A goodly portion of the populace sees the virus as but another vile creation of us in the Mainstream Media. Indeed, a word has been added to the vernacular. As John Isner, the tennis player who matriculated at Georgia, tweeted last month: “You coronabros can stay in your basement all you want. I choose to live my life and play/promote my sport in a safe matter.”

OK, then. What’s “safe”? Is there such a thing? Do we even know? We ask because college football, popular in these parts, has become a microcosm of our nation’s great divide. (As if a billion-dollar industry can be deemed a micro-anything.) The Big Ten and Pac-12 said they weren’t playing last week. The Mid-American and Mountain West also shut down. Everything below FBS/Division I has been shuttered.

And yet: Three of the Power Five – the ACC, Big 12 and SEC – plan to play. Three of the Group of Five – the American Athletic, Conference USA and the Sun Belt – plan to play. On Saturday, Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, told CNN: “If the testing in the U.S. stays the way it is, there’s no way we can go forward with sports.”

And yet: Earlier Saturday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Food and Drug Administration gave an emergency authorization for use of SalivaDirect, a test the FDA commissioner called “groundbreaking.” From the WSJ: “The next aim is to prove that SalivaDirect can detect the virus in people who don’t feel sick, as experts consider asymptomatic screening critical to preventing silent transmission and crushing the spread.”

So: If SalivaDirect – which can deliver a result within hours, as opposed to days or weeks, and is cheap enough to be used in mass quantities – is the COVID test we’ve lacked, and if it’s available before what’s left of college football starts, is there indeed a way forward? And if so, should the Big Ten and Pac-12 have waited before deciding not to play?

Justin Fields, briefly a Georgia Bulldog, has launched a #WeWantToPlay petition on MoveOn.org asking that the Big Ten – he now plays, or played, for Ohio State – overturn its considered decision. As of 10:10 a.m. EDT Monday, the petition had received 224,234 signatures. Vox populi!

In the wake of the Big Ten/Pac-12 exits, many have wondered how the other P5ers could view the same medical data and reach a different conclusion. As Dr. Catherine O’Neal, an LSU infectious disease specialist, told the Athletic: “I would say we have seen enough to develop a safe plan. They have not.”

As Tom Mars, a lawyer who has filed waivers for transfers (Fields included) and worked with the NCAA on eligibility issues, told Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports: “Not to disparage Dr. Neal at all, but if she had opined it wasn’t safe to play college football this fall, I’m not sure she’d be representing the SEC much longer.”

Over the weekend, the Oregonian asked Oregon State president F. King Alexander, who for six years was LSU’s president, what the Pac-12 sees that the SEC doesn’t? Said Alexander: “I think, probably, reality.”

From the old song regarding Kentucky coal mines and the union: “Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?”

That, folks, is where college football sits – as a political football in a time when everything from masks to medical data to how that data is reported by the MSM is a heated political issue. The six conferences planning to play have headquarters in North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. That’s rather different from being based in California, Illinois, Ohio and Colorado.

Back to our song: “They say in Harlan County/There are no neutrals there/You’ll either be a union man/Or a thug for J.H. Blair.”

(J.H. Blair was a sheriff considered an ally of the mine owners. Not for nothing did the mountain town in question become known as Bloody Harlan.)

It’s hard to imagine that a pandemic, about which you’d think there’d be only one side – how do we survive this thing and get rid of it? – has cleaved us into two camps. Coronabro or COVID denier? Red State or Blue State? Football or no football? But that’s where we are. The federal government has largely recused itself. Policy varies from state to state. School systems vary from county to county, in some cases week to week. The NCAA isn’t strong enough to do much more than drop hints. Conferences see what they want to see.

There are no neutrals here. There’s no clarity, either. There’s just COVID-19, which either is or isn’t a big deal.