COLUMN: Return of College Football Signals Turning Point in Pandemic

“We’re constantly looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, and sports is a great indicator of how visible that light really is.”

I wrote this four weeks ago in my first column for the Threefold Advocate, titled, “Wear a Mask to Save College Sports.” I still stand by this statement. Mass gatherings are crucial for the return to normalcy, and the return of college football with fans in the stands may be able to show us how close to normalcy we really are, perhaps signaling a turning point in the pandemic.

The return of college football has received mixed reception from the general public. Many sports fans, players, coaches and media personalities have cheered the decisions of the ACC, Big 12 and SEC to hold firm on their decisions to play in the fall, as well as the decisions by the Big Ten and Pac-12 to reverse course on their postponements. Others, including many medical experts, have warned against mass gatherings and raised concerns about the large, often maskless crowds in many football stadiums across the country over the last few weeks.

I have opinions on what needs to be done, but I’m open to hearing the other side, and I acknowledge that both sides can, and have made mistakes over the last six months. I previously stated in my “Wear a Mask” column that it wasn’t a good idea to have sports this fall, even writing that it wasn’t “safe or responsible.” With the first month of the college football season behind us, there are a couple thoughts I have on that and the previous statements that I have made:

1.      While the return of college football hasn’t been a bed of roses, it has not been as apocalyptic as many portrayed such a move to be. While teams have had to postpone and cancel games as a result of COVID-19 outbreaks in their locker rooms, COVID-19 hospitalizations in not only locker rooms, but on college campuses as a whole have been minimal. Andrew Bostom reported on Sept. 22 that in data from 37 U.S. universities, while there were nearly 48,000 positive COVID-19 tests, there was a “near absence” of reported COVID-19 hospitalizations, with only two reported and zero reported deaths.

2.      We have seen that in many areas, such as the JBU campus, when students strictly adhere to COVID-19 guidelines and protocols, case numbers are also minimal. On Sept. 25, JBU reported that six weeks into the semester, there were only 16 cumulative positive tests among the students, with zero active cases.

Looking back at that piece, I was proven both right and wrong. I was proven right that wearing a mask does help in lowering the prevalence of COVID-19, but I was proven wrong regarding my belief that trying to bring sports back in the fall would be a potentially dangerous exercise in futility. I would peg college football’s return so far as mostly successful, and, with that success, I believe we are reaching a turning point, at least socially, relating to this pandemic. 

As the college football season continues to progress, and as long as it continues to remain mostly successful in approaching the pandemic, a strong sense of normalcy will return. If it remains successful, the people that argued against the return of college football will continue to be proven wrong, and it will result in people opening themselves up to taking more risks, and the increased acceptance and normalization of the risks that mass gatherings pose could result in an end to the COVID-19 pandemic on a social level.

Please don’t confuse what I’m saying here. I am not actively encouraging a willful ignorance of the pandemic and what we need to do to slow the spread. I strongly urge every person reading this to stay vigilant in taking precautions like wearing a mask, socially distancing when you are able to and making sure to wash your hands.

With that said, people are growing tired, and they want to eventually return to normal. Unless college football hits a major bump in the road in the form of mass hospitalizations or deaths as a result of COVID-19, college football could potentially be the turning point that leads the return to normalcy. The light at the end of the tunnel may be brighter than we previously thought.

Photo courtesy of Geoff Scott