How a Pandemic Unmasked the Hypocrisy of Football Culture
The Welcome to the Machine Podcast — Episode 16
In early 2020, when it became increasingly clear that organized sports was going to have to pay attention to the Covid-19 outbreak, the first sport to be impacted was the NBA, when it suspended the 2020 season indefinitely on March 11. On March 12, almost every other proverbial domino toppled: The NHL suspended its season indefinitely and the NCAA cancelled March Madness. It was the first time the NCAA basketball tournament had not been played since 1939. That same day, the PGA suspended its season indefinitely, and the NCAA cancelled the college baseball season. The Major League Baseball season was suspended and did not begin until July 23. Only 60 games were played and there were no fans in attendance for the regular season games. In addition to college basketball and baseball, every other college team and individual sport was cancelled.
Universities and college football fans preach about their concern for the well-being of the “student-athletes” who attend their schools. And as Covid-19 began to wreak havoc, they managed to maintain this false front when it came to every sport except one; the facade crumbled when they began to realize that they might not get to watch football. The result of this angst was a forced, chaotic, shortened, and illegitimate 2020 college season, the personal health costs of which we will never be able to measure, and it opened a window into the true hearts and minds of college administrators, fans, and college football culture.
When the Covid pandemic initially hit in late 2019, the football industry had been due a reckoning for years. Neuroscience — to that point — hadn’t been able to bring it about. No amount of logic or established medical science had done it. Leave it to a most unlikely and ironic source to bring the football industry and its warped culture to their knees: A microorganism.
For years, the industry has been locked in what it perceives is a pitched battle with emerging medical science that tells us that football is dangerous for the current and long-term health of players. Football has attempted to deflect these facts and the medical science in various ways. The industry has gone so far as to claim there is no connection between football and insidious diseases like dementia, Alzheimer’s and CTE. They have gone so far as to shout down and silence medical professionals. And lately, as recently as a few years ago, their claims have begun to look and sound extremely desperate.
And when the industry was fully engaged with this mortal enemy to the game’s continued existence — at least in its current form — something entirely unforeseen infiltrated from its undefended flank and ambushed it.
And yet, in early 2020 when the lockdowns hit, and even in light of the fact that every sports league — college and professional — was postponed, suspended, or canceled in various ways, football fans still somehow thought football was Covid-proof.
They found out they were wrong.
It all reminded me of the ending of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, where aliens from outer space invade the Earth and begin destroying everything in their path. Nothing can slow or contain their advance, let alone stop it. No power of humanity, no military weapon can even dent one of their ships.
The original story has been covered and retold by various people, including Orson Welles in his famous (or infamous) radio broadcast on Halloween, 1938, and in several movies, most notably Steven Spielberg’s version from 2005 starring Tom Cruise. The invading space aliens seem literally bulletproof and invincible. And then, all of a sudden, they are brought to heel by the most unlikely of things, earthly microbes against which they have no immunity, “slain,” as Wells observes, “after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.”
And yet, the industry and many of its fans continued to mulishly push ahead as they had since the start of the pandemic as if the rules — indeed, as if science itself — somehow did not apply to football. We heard talk for months of football going ahead despite the worldwide pandemic. You see, those rules that applied to the NBA, PGA tour, college baseball, college basketball (“March Madness”), NASCAR, and so on did not apply to football. That appeared to be the argument. People evidently thought it would all magically be over by August, 2020. But as with so many things in the year 2020, people learned that they were wrong.
Other observers offered early warnings of the far-reaching consequences of the pandemic and the dangerous ramifications of the wrong response.
As Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger and Pat Forde noted back in April of 2020, college football’s top-level programs have bathed in cash for many years now, building lavish facilities, signing coaches to bigger and bigger multimillion-dollar contracts and massively increasing athletic staff sizes. Revenues had never been greater, giving was at an all-time high and, while attendance had shown a steady decline, premium seating and TV money were taking off. But the gravy train hit a snag without a timely and full 2020 season.
“We’re all effed,” said one Power 5 athletic director who wished to remain anonymous. “There’s no other way to look at this, is there?”
As they noted, it was feared that a total or partial loss of college football in 2020 would have sent some athletic departments so deep into the red that one administrator predicted even some of the Power 5 football programs shuttering.
The long-term and severe financial impacts from an economic recession could not only reform forever how athletic departments operate but also could spell sweeping changes to the landscape of college athletics — from the formation of a super division to a new wave of conference realignment, from money-saving travel modifications to football scheduling alterations, from discontinued sports to thousands of lost jobs.
But these fears were the consequence of universities selling their proverbial souls for cash. When universities went from institutions of higher learning that placed education above anything else to cash-generating leviathans more eager to make money and build facilities in order to keep up with the rest — and in turn became too dependent on sports played by 17 to 22-year-old student athletes — it was only a matter of time before they would face an existential crisis.
Be careful the beast you unleash.
It was not just the football industry that was in need of a reckoning; colleges and universities faced a reckoning and a forced “course correction,” that was long overdue. And yet, the industry — or at least parts of it — insisted on plowing ahead into the valley of death, like the proverbial Light Brigade. This is not hyperbole either.
One of the most frightening developments during the initial months of the crisis was this fact: Players who tested positive for the virus and recovered had, in fact, not recovered, and had developed myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. The condition was found in at least five Big Ten Conference athletes and among several other athletes in other conferences, according to two sources with knowledge of those athletes’ medical care.
Severe myocarditis can permanently damage the heart muscle, possibly causing heart failure, heart attack or stroke, rapid or abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias), and sudden cardiac death. Certain serious arrhythmias can cause the heart to stop beating. It’s fatal if not treated immediately.
And yet, even in the face of all of this, people were still clamoring for their annual hit of football. Much like an addict, they didn’t care about anyone; they didn’t care about the consequences or repercussions to players of playing. They just wanted their hit. They want it. And they need it. And they still needed it and insisted upon it, even in the middle of the worst viral pandemic in a century.
The utter hypocrisy in all of this is that many football fans that were demanding that college football go ahead for the fall, 2020, had virtue-signaled to everyone else since March, telling the rest of us to get with the program, stay home, wear masks, etc and so forth, so we could all block the spread of the disease and flatten the curve. And yet those same people continued to talk about the upcoming football season as if they and football were living in some kind of parallel universe or bubble where life continued to operate as it did before Covid. They stayed home and told their fellow citizens to do the same…except for those kids playing college football. Could they see how utterly hypocritical they were being?
Well, those people soon learned that football was not bulletproof.
In early August, the Pac-12, Big 10, Mountain West, Mid-American and other conferences had all canceled football for the 2020 season. But the SEC, Big 12 and ACC, carried the pipe dream of a full college football season in the midst of the pandemic forward, as if doing so would really be a legitimate season.
The apologists kept saying — like a mantra — that “the players want to play.” That should not have mattered.
First of all, all of us “wanted” to do certain things since March, 2020, that we were not allowed to do in order to control the spread of the virus. You know; go to church, go to the gym, eat a meal in a restaurant, go have a drink at the bar, take a vacation, go to the beach, etc. We were not allowed to do that for several months. Why does the analysis change when it comes to college football players?
Those of you who preached to everyone for all of those months, why did you expect your fix of football when the fall came around? Can you explain that? No; you can’t.
Second, these players are not just “football players,” but students. At least that’s the fiction the NCAA and universities have been clinging to for decades in order to justify the fact that schools are making billions off college football and basketball players that permit the schools to keep athletic programs for men and women in different sports afloat, not to mention maintain continuous building projects, with new buildings on campus and stadium renovations, all so they can keep up with the proverbial Joneses.
Let’s be honest here; schools use their “student-athletes.” They take advantage of their desire to play. But let’s remember one thing; these players are 17–22 year-olds. You can make them — as some reports have indicated — sign waivers all day long, but in a court of law, those waivers would not be worth the paper they’re printed on.
Moreover, 17 to 22 year olds are not an age group noted for great decision-making. We only need to consider our own time at that age to know how flighty and untethered our daily decisions were and how absolutely they were not grounded in logic or imbued with much real perspective or reflection. Sure these kids want to play. But someone must be the adult in the room and step up and make the decision for them. Unfortunately, the adults were absent on this occasion.
As it played out, some conferences canceled the season outright, while other conferences — after much gnashing of teeth and pressure from those who could not live without it — announced they would play a shortened season: The SEC, Big 12, and ACC would play ten games, the Big Ten would play eight, and the PAC 12 would play seven.
After the inevitable outbreaks and spikes resulting from bringing people back into close proximity, many games were postponed or canceled. The games that actually were played were played before mostly-empty stadiums containing ridiculous and surreal cardboard cutouts of people. Several bowl games were also canceled.
Many fans and observers found the season fraudulent, and questioned the legitimacy of any team claiming a championship.
It was estimated that each of the so-called Big 5 schools lost approximately 150 million dollars of revenue from the Covid-impacted 2020 college football season. But the personal costs of pushing ahead with what turned out to be a chaotic and illegitimate season just to assuage the addictions of cash-hungry schools and football fans will never be known.
How many of those Saturday afternoons spent watching football games with friends bear some responsibility for the 100,000 confirmed Covid-related deaths around America since the first snap of a game in the 2020 season? And because we’re still learning about this novel virus, the damage it wreaked on hundreds of players may not become evident for years.
The lasting effects of the 2020 college season are unknowable — but for those rabid members of American football culture who simply had to have their fix, these costs are unimportant.
As my father started to say after his playing days were done, “There’s more to life than football.” At the time, being one of those young players myself, I didn’t really understand what he was talking about, because my “life” to that point hadn’t consisted of much outside of playing football. But over the ensuing decades I would come to fully understand how profound those words were.
What is needed right now is a big course correction. A reboot. An unplugging from the football matrix.
There is more to life than football. Once you figure that out, it will open you up to the possibilities. And you will know what it’s like to be free of the addiction, and free of the machine.
Glen Hines is the author of the Anthology Trilogy of books — Document, Cloudbreak, and Crossroads — and the highly regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.