Football is undefeated.
That is the lesson from our summer of angst, our fall of flip-flopping, our back-and-forth battle over whether to play this season amid a pandemic that is not over. Football will not be denied. Football will steamroll those who stand in its path. Football will win in a blowout, then point at the scoreboard.
It is an amazing societal phenomenon. In a nation that had to alter almost every facet of daily life, football was placed on the Must Preserve List. History will judge whether that choice, which might have been more of a primal urging, was the right one.
The National Football League, the true American sporting behemoth, was never going to let COVID-19 prevent it from playing. Money was no object and dissent was no concern. The NFL plowed on, with a rigorous and expensive testing program that served its purpose.
College football is where the tension lies, given its ties to higher education (classrooms closed, practices ongoing) and its morally squishy economics (so much money coming in, so little of it going to the athletes themselves). The inherent conflicts are glaring in the best of times, and even more so in the morass of 2020. For months the sport writhed around in self-doubting agony, its putative leaders all over the map, seemingly lacking both consensus and conviction.
In early August, with the virus raging, consensus started to form. The sport was shutting down. Most everyone at the Division I level opted out, leaving just six FBS conferences out of 34 still playing. But when those Stubborn Six didn’t fold, establishing a beachhead of sorts, that was the turning point.
Then a rudderless sport lacking centralized leadership reverted to its DNA. At its root, college football is about status—bragging rights, superiority over a competing tribe, our way of life vs. yours, our bank account vs. yours. Those who were playing had the status. They were “big time.” They were committed. They were having fun (or as much fun as can be ginned up playing a skeleton season in a mostly empty stadium).
Those who were not playing couldn’t stand it. They would not stand for it. The president of the United States seized on the passion/pathology of football fans, trying to use it for political gain.
Daily antigen testing? That was vital, no doubt. But you know what else pushed this to a critical mass? Watching other conferences play.
Last week, the Big Ten got its season and its status back. That, in turn, forced the hand of the Pac-12. Peer pressure isn’t just a teenage thing; it happens at the millionaire leadership level of college football as well. In that world, being excluded from the “big time” club is worse than anything.
So the Pac-12, forever playing catch-up in the college sports status struggle, got caught up Thursday. Late and last, but the league is here. It will play a fall football season like the rest of the Power 5 conferences.
And then later Thursday, the Mountain West Conference signed on. Schools with less ability to afford and implement a top-flight testing regimen pushed onward. Why? They couldn’t sit on the sideline and watch the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA and the Sun Belt play.
Friday we have the 10th and final FBS league reconsidering its opt-out. The Mid-American, populated by schools beset with money issues, must decide whether it can somehow make a go of it or stew in the low-status ignominy of sitting this one out.
So even with the sport was down three touchdowns in early August, it chalked up another "W" in late September. Football wins again, relentlessly overcoming institutional inconsistencies and medical obstacles.
Every fall sport the NCAA sponsors was moved to the spring. FBS football was perfectly willing to go it alone.
The NCAA medical advisory group listed the sport in its highest risk category during the summer, and chief medical officer Brian Hainline opined against playing. That was brushed aside. The NCAA had no jurisdiction over FBS football, so why listen?
School and conference leaders who said during the summer that regular students would have to be on campus and in-person classes happening to justify a football season stopped saying that. Those goalposts weren’t just moved, they were uprooted and put into storage sheds.
When outbreaks happened on campus as regular students moved back in for the semester, football was unimpeded. In the scary month of March, a single NBA player tested positive and shut down every sport in America. In the defiant month of September, more than a thousand cases on a single campus couldn’t shut down football practice.
A big reason why football was considered valuable in that context: if players didn’t have the motivation of a season to play—the pigskin carrot on the end of the stick—they wouldn’t take their health and safety as seriously. They would lose discipline. Keep playing, and the team’s virus numbers will stay low.
(Among those who advanced that theory were officials at Notre Dame, a school that made a couple of notable concessions to football: joining a conference for the first time in 133 years, and continuing August practice even when campus shut down due to high general student virus numbers. Somehow, the season carrot must have withered. The Fighting Irish game against Wake Forest Saturday has been called off, and contact tracing from South Florida’s game against Notre Dame has also postponed USF’s Saturday game against Florida Atlantic.)
Nearly two-dozen college games have been postponed or canceled thus far. That has been deemed the cost of doing business amid a pandemic. Nobody is slowing down because of it.
In the Southeastern Conference, athletic programs won’t divulge their testing numbers. Trust us. We’re committed to health and safety. That cliché is good enough for the fans in that league, because football.
One of the big reasons this is all working is that college football players have not become notably seriously ill. Let’s desperately hope that continues.
If it does continue, the indomitable will of football can be considered a societal positive. It gave us a fall college season that millions hungered for.
If it doesn’t continue, and something goes wrong, this will be the undefeated sport’s pyrrhic victory.