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COLUMN: On grief, morality and the meaning of college football

With CFB in 2020 on death’s doorstep, now is a moment to reflect.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has left millions with an empty feeling. Our lives have been disrupted beyond previous reasonable conception and with little warning. What seemed like a weeks-long strife has turned into months and has the potential to become years. Yet through it all, students are expected to shift to online lectures, employees are expected to shift to a remote workday and everyone is expected to find a way to carry on in this new life we’ve found ourselves in.

The feeling we share is grief. For some, grief in the traditional sense for the loss of a loved one, but for most, grief for the loss of our way of life. Restaurants and bars were taken from us and replaced with masked exchanges of food and drink in takeout containers. Parties and social gatherings were replaced by video calls. We were told these conditions were temporary with no guarantee they will become superfluous, and we’re feeling the effects of this lack of foresight now.

In coping with such a swift and sweeping change, it’s only natural for us to look for some sort of familiarity to guide us through the unrest. For myself and millions of Americans, sports is what we turned to. In the long months of March, April, May and much of June, we yearned for the return of sports, happily offering a few hours of our attention for an escape from the perils or the monotony of our lives, an exchange we’d made on dozens if not hundreds of occasions before.

When sports finally returned, not only were stadiums left quiet and devoid of fans, but most contests were confined to a single location, bringing in the era of the “bubble”. Soccer lead the way, with the first whistle of the NWSL Challenge Cup breaking the tape of the race to return, and they were shortly followed by MLS, the NBA and the NHL, all in bubble formats with tournaments or league games in a single complex (or two locations without crossover in the case of hockey).

The reality of sports during the pandemic is that creating a bubble works: the NHL has stayed free of positive coronavirus tests since reporting to their host cities and the NBA has remained COVID-free following their last several rounds of testing. Anything short of a full bubble is set up for failure — MLB returned to play with a locational schedule and empty stadiums but kept teams in their ballparks, meaning teams traveled for games and players were not constantly quarantined. In just over two weeks of play, MLB has seen three teams register dangerous numbers of positive coronavirus tests and created a scheduling nightmare that has critics calling for a stop to the season for good.

The problem is that not all sports lend themselves well to a bubble format, college football being one of them. Even under a conference-only schedule like many conferences have chosen to implement to this point, the concept of securing a site to establish a bubble, the logistics that entails, keeping players enrolled and keeping up with online classes and somehow finding a way to convince the athletes to do so without pay raises seemingly too many questions to answer.

We know conducting a college football season in a safe manner is nearly impossible, yet we want it all the same. How do we address our conscience? Even the athletes themselves are split on the issue. The past weeks have seen opt-outs abound and a letter from a block of PAC-12 players threatening boycott if a list of demands are not met, including some regarding racial injustice along with health and safety measures. Others took to Twitter under the hashtag #WeWantToPlay to voice their support for the implementation of a college football season, with Clemson superstar QB Trevor Lawrence citing safety concerns away from football.

As fans, how do we look at these two evaluations of the CFB situation and decide what is right and wrong? We want our escape back — we want to be entertained by these talented young men from all corners of the country and we want to recapture the magic we’ve felt for years prior. We also want the athletes, coaches, staff and all the other people involved in the production of college football to be safe and healthy. But what really is safe, and how much are we willing to sacrifice others’ security for our own selfish desires?

In many ways America doesn’t deserve to have football back. If this pandemic has taught us one thing about sports in society, it’s that spectating is a privilege, one that can be easily revoked by circumstance. While sports do provide a very unique platform for positive change in American society, there is no arguing their main purpose is entertainment. Meanwhile, the United States has fallen far behind other wealthy nations in the fight to flatten the coronavirus curve. While a host of problems contributes to this, how much blame can we assign to ourselves, either for contributing to the more systemic issues or simply for not taking better care in our response?

Here we exist in limbo. We have a schedule that few believe will actually be implemented and Big Ten leadership that has yet to put the final nail in the coffin on the 2020 football season. In all likelihood that nail will come; in all likelihood that nail will come very, very soon. As we continue to adjust our lives to what could be “the new normal,” it doesn’t hurt to turn an eye to the past: remember the good; remember the bad; but remember all the same, for we may be waiting for new Northwestern football memories for a while longer.