LINCOLN — The heat of a summer September night carries the noise. Pilgrims walk toward hallowed ground, the big beige cathedral off Vine Street, for the first Husker football game of an important year in Scott Frost’s tenure.
It’s NU’s season opener at Memorial Stadium. Purdue is in town. Immediate stakes on the first weekend, big enough that the game got a prime-time kickoff. The weather is perfect — 82 degrees, clear, the temperature dropping as the sun does.
But there’s an odd sight inside the East Stadium loop. Inside large white tents, they’re checking tickets 200 yards away from the stadium. They’re checking temperatures, too, medical personnel pointing a thermometer at the foreheads of each fan. Thousands more have been told to stay home if they’re exhibiting cold or flu-like symptoms of any kind that might suggest they have COVID-19. Once 10,000 tickets have been scanned to enter Memorial Stadium, that’s it. Everybody else has to go home.
That’s one scene. Improbable, perhaps.
Another, at least at this moment, is 90,000 jamming into Memorial Stadium, sitting literally inches apart from each other, going to restrooms, buying hot dogs, sharing, on the sly, pulls from a whiskey bottle in the parking lot.
Yes, that Sept. 5 game — and the college football season — is five months away, but consider how we’re living right now. Consider the U.S. has likely not yet experienced the apex of coronavirus in its epicenter, New York City, much less the rest of the nation. Consider that, even with all of science working on vaccines and antiviral treatments, it would stretch all credulity to have the former, and potentially the latter, in place by September.
You start chewing on those facts and you start seeing the very real questions facing college football athletic directors, the NCAA and television networks a few weeks from now. Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos told The World-Herald last week it’s too early for the football season to be in jeopardy — the goal right now is to get back some spring practices in June — but by mid-April, you can bet the conversation heats up.
Already, a Sports Business Journal article suggesting the potential of a summer college football season has been mostly shot down by various college football insiders.
But there are other options you can examine. What would you, Nebraska fan, be willing to endure?
» There may be a shortened training camp with a full season.
» There may be a season where the TV contracts stay intact — and the TV contracts are the key money sources — but fans mostly stay home.
» There may be a postponed season that starts in October and finishes in February.
»There may be a truncated season of fewer games, all in conference, with no postseason.
» There may be no season at all, a nightmarish cancellation that guts the funding of nearly every college athletic department for years.
And one of college football’s best-known analysts has already called his shot.
“I don’t know how you let these guys go into locker rooms and let stadiums be filled up and how you can play ball,” Kirk Herbstreit said last week on ESPN Radio. “I just don’t know how you can do it with the optics of it. As much as I hate to say it, I think we’re scratching the surface of where this thing’s gonna go.”
Herbstreit’s reasoning was that athletic directors — or the NFL commissioner, were this the pros — wouldn’t want a locker room full of sick players on their watch.
The NFL, being a private entity, can do some creative things that could work around the virus — isolate players in the middle of nowhere, play in Wyoming, liability waivers, more.
Major college football is a coast-to-coast operation without half that flexibility. Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said the 65 schools that comprise the Power Five are working together to figure out a solution, but coronavirus may have the most leverage at the negotiating table. Maybe the only good answer, like Herbstreit suggests, is to wait until the vaccine is available.
Take Louisiana. The state has been hit hard already and the worst may be still to come. Is LSU football safe to play in that environment?
What about Rutgers 30 miles from New York City? UCLA? USC? Football in Boone, North Carolina (Appalachian State), and Happy Valley (Penn State) might be pretty safe by September. It seems less likely to be true in Austin, Texas.
Would college football cease for a year if some teams can’t participate, or can those programs be made financially whole while others go on? Would teams move players to other states to isolate, practice and take classes online? Can a sport whose leaders debate the smallest details arrive at a compromise for the greater good?
Is even speculating about a college football season in the face of a still-spreading virus a useful exercise?
That question cuts to the heart of it, and it’s legitimate to say no.
I say yes.
The sport is in the economic, social and cultural fabric of America.
On most campuses, the TV and gate money made from it funds many other sports and athletic departments as a whole. The weekends of millions revolve around college football in good ways. It connects generations, communities, states, a nation. The sport bleeds into the biggest moments of life: weddings and funerals, birthday parties and retirement parties, bucket lists and family trips.
Automatically canceling it — along with many other quality-of-life events — without considering at the very least a “no public gathering” option only postpones a bigger question.
How are we going to live, long term, in the age of the coronavirus after this current, heartbreaking stage of trying not to die from it?
College football is just far enough away on the calendar to be a part of that answer.
In the meantime, if you love sports, root for science and social distancing. That’s the playbook back to normal.
The 2020 Nebraska football schedule
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