What is college football without community?

by Zach Bigalke

What does college football mean to the community if nobody can show up to watch the games and support their team? We’ll soon know the answer.

On the Sunday morning after Independence Day in the United States, more than 132,000 Americans have died after contracting COVID-19. While fireworks popped and community after community congregated in large crowds to celebrate the holiday, others spent their last moments as citizens on respirators or dealing with the slow recovery from the novel coronavirus.

States continue to grapple with how to manage the spread of the virus. The best practices detailed by epidemiologists have frequently been ignored in favor of politicizing a virus without any concern for an individual’s politics. Uncertainty hovers heavy like firework smoke over the land four months after calls were first made to shut down life as usual.

Even with preventative measures unevenly applied across the country, the number of American coronavirus victims far exceeds the capacity of even the largest college football stadiums in the country. This has been true for more than a month at this point.

Around the same time as the death toll surpassed the capacity of the Big House, universities started to bring back football players to campus for voluntary workouts. Since then we have seen dozens of athletes test positive for COVID-19. At defending College Football Playoff national champion LSU, at least 30 football players tested positive. Their opponent in the championship game, Clemson, reports 37 positive tests among the players on their roster.

Programs throughout the country have shuttered practices as the virus spread through their team. It raises serious questions about what college football means to us as a community and what we are willing to compromise to see players take the field in 2020.

What sacrifice are we willing to make for football to return this year?

It is often said that baseball is America’s pastime. As football historian Michael Oriard argues, though, it is football that is America’s greatest spectacle. If baseball is our national superego, football undoubtedly encapsulates the communal id.

If you are here reading this article, it is probably safe to assume that you love college football and want nothing more than to see teams kick off the new season as scheduled. That is no less true for those of us who write about the sport for our daily bread.

A steady stream of articles and podcasts and magazines continue to preview the upcoming campaigns in hopes that our wishes will become reality. We function in a state of suspended disbelief as a community, hoping that life can return to normal before Labor Day.

Schools and states continue to send mixed messages, though, as we course through the summer. South Carolina, where Clemson leads the country in COVID-19 positives among FBS programs, is threatening to prohibit football altogether in the state if numbers continue to rise. If a state at the heart of a region so closely identified with community passion for college football is seriously looking at the risks inherent in bringing back the sport this year, we are starting to see a line in the sand as to how much sacrifice is acceptable.

As a result, what we are likely to witness is something akin to the way football worked around the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Some teams will continue practicing in hopes of infecting all their players and achieving a herd immunity that might or might not actually be possible.

More likely is that teams will take to the field, hoping to beat science. Some teams will inevitably struggle with keeping enough players healthy to field teams from week to week. The end result will be a hodgepodge of results, with some teams playing a full or nearly-full slate of games and others forced to cancel large chunks of their schedules.

Will it really be college football if it can’t return with crowds?

What we must consider in this calculus is whether college football will really be college football if it can only return to empty stadiums. Without the tailgating, the marching bands, the halftime programming, and the full-throated roar of tens of thousands of fans acting in unison, what is college football but a made-for-TV spectacle indistinguishable from its professional counterpart?

College football certainly has its own problematic history. There is a long legacy of excluding black players and black colleges from championship consideration. There is the exploitation of effectively paying athletes in university scrip while they sacrifice their bodies for a billion-dollar industry. There is the ongoing concern for athlete safety as we learn more about the long-term impacts of concussions and sub-concussive blows to the head.

At the same time, however, it has served as a gathering point for communities throughout the United States for more than a century — even bringing together those who would otherwise be enemies in their daily life. It is that community aspect that keeps us coming back year after year, even those of us who struggle through the issues baked into the sport.

Thus we must ask ourselves what college football is worth to us, not just in terms of one season but in terms of a lifetime of memories. A season without fans in the stands or celebrating outside the stadium is a season hollowed out of its significance. It is the equivalent of Madden 2021 adding 10 college football teams to its “Face of the Franchise” mode, a marginal substitute for the real thing.

After watching the first return of soccer in Germany and experiencing the tinny echoes of cavernous empty stadiums, I also know that whatever does take place will be an odd approximation of college football. The sport, in the end, is so much more than just 11 players on each side ramming into each other for 60 minutes. Without the community of supporters, college football will merely be a crude approximation of itself.

Will we watch? I know I certainly will be right there in my den each weekend that football transpires, watching the games and covering them right here at Saturday Blitz. But I will also be left with that hollow feeling of knowing this is football with a university’s name attached rather than college football at its fullest.

Zach is currently a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology at Penn State focusing on the history and philosophy of sport. He has covered a variety of American and international sports online and in print since 2006 and was formerly the managing editor at Informative Sports and Sports Unbiased.