The path to an SEC and college football season

covid-19 test tube

As the United States continues to wrestle with COVID-19 and all of its various complications, virtually any column on college football in a pandemic has to begin with these three basic statements:

By Matt Zemek

  1. This is not a normal situation, so don’t expect normal game experiences or a normal progression of events if we do play games at all. Don’t think that normal, familiar solutions are the only acceptable solutions.
  2. Wanting college football to happen (I do!) and recommending that college football happen are two very different things. There are lots of things in this world we want to see… but don’t actually get. Life isn’t fair, or so you might have heard.
  3. Don’t be mad at your neighbor based on his/her decision to wear — or not wear — a mask. Don’t be furious at a teenager who goes to a swimming pool or waterpark party with friends and doesn’t social distance. Those behaviors aren’t advisable, but they shouldn’t be the focus of our anger as a nation. The reason we’re in this deep mess is government failing to do its job.

Think beyond masks

If we are going to have a college football season, then, think beyond mask-wearing. Think beyond the actual science of COVID-19.

No, this does not mean masks are irrelevant. They aren’t. Don’t think that social distancing doesn’t matter. It does.

However: They are incomplete solutions. They are part of the solution, but they’re not the whole solution. More precisely, they are not the biggest solution.

You might be annoyed that an SEC column in the middle of July (when SEC Media Days were originally scheduled to be held, before being postponed) is not focusing on how Alabama and Georgia are preparing for their big SEC clash. You might be disgusted that we’re spending our time on how to play football in a pandemic, instead of on how LSU and Ed Orgeron are going to handle their first season after a 15-0 national championship conquest.

Guess what: I’m annoyed, too. I’m disgusted too, just as you are.

I know Dan Wolken has come across as a hectoring scold on these things, and to a certain extent, I think there is SOME validity to the claim that he hasn’t been supportive of the effort to make college football happen. However: He was pessimistic with good reason. It’s not as though his evaluation of our health care infrastructure and our systems of government was off base or fundamentally inaccurate.

Wolken — even if you understandably think he never wanted college football to happen — has been vindicated in one central respect: He said our systems weren’t ready for all of this.

Are we going to dispute that point now? Can we concede that despite our resources and knowledge and our desire to play college football, there are circumstances and realities our national and state governments haven’t been able to manage properly? This mismanagement is why the college football season is in such peril.

Some sports leagues playing with good results

Let’s realize that the English Premier League is playing soccer without explosions of COVID-19 positive test results. The German Bundesliga is doing something similar.

Look at those pictures on Twitter of Taiwan playing professional baseball WITH fans in the stands.

The virus is a terror, to be sure, and we have always known that the virus itself — more than any person — is the biggest threat to college football in particular and American life in general.

Yet, that basic point — the virus is the driver of our actions — was supposed to have created a good response to the virus.

That good response hasn’t emerged.

If there is to be a college football season, masks and social distancing are part of the story, as noted above. However, the BIGGEST key is not the science.

It’s the economics.

We are talking about COVID-19 right now — and not the SEC season or how the various teams look just before training camp — because we don’t know if a season will happen. Why are we here in this terrible and uncertain position? Because policymakers failed to realize that the virus and the economy were linked. How we responded to the virus would dictate so many economic conditions and realities.

LSU player catches ballWe haven’t contained the virus as a country, so we’re facing these awful economic realities. The failure to address one part has led to bad results in the other part.

If we are going to have an SEC and college football season, then, masks and social distancing won’t ultimately save us. They will have a role in saving us, but they aren’t number one.

The biggest thing that can still save the season: Massive economic stimulus.

Extended unemployment assistance. Paycheck protection. Canceled rents and mortgages. Monthly checks to citizens.

If you live in an SEC state, get on the horn with your representative and Senators. Massive stimulus is what can potentially save the college football season.

Unconvinced? Look around you.

First of all, if there’s no college football, think of the ENORMOUS economic hit to your university and other universities throughout the South and the country as a whole. If we have to spend a lot of money now to save the economy and save citizens from living in greater precarity and danger, that seems like an easy cost-benefit analysis, certainly in a crisis.

Remember: This is not normal. Normal thinking and normal solutions don’t apply. Millions of Americans are in crisis or — if not there yet — are on the edge of crisis with unemployment assistance ending in roughly one week, and with a second round of stimulus checks not yet approved by Congress.

Your rep and your United States Senators need to pass these forms of relief as soon as possible, so that people have money to survive. People would essentially be paid to stay home and thereby not risk mingling with other members of the population. That’s how the virus can be quickly contained.

It’s not a guarantee that the virus will be quickly contained… but it’s the best possible hope for that outcome. That’s the outcome we all need if we are going to save college football.

If millions of Americans don’t get more money very soon, and if rents and mortgages aren’t canceled, August 1 will witness an explosion of unpaid rents and an increase in homelessness. Citizens will be forced to physically search for alternative solutions to their needs, instead of remaining safely in their own homes and ordering groceries online, which stores can deliver in a contactless (socially distanced) fashion. This is how my 78-year-old mother has survived in a pandemic: by ordering groceries online and very rarely leaving her house.

The science of COVID-19 is certainly important, but without sufficient economic relief, there’s no way Americans are going to stay inside their own homes with the consistency needed to get the virus under control.

If we don’t get the virus under control, there won’t be a season.

Call your representative in the House and call your Senators. Massive and immediate economic relief, before August 1, is how you might be able to see SEC and college football in September. Without that, forget about it.

I wish I was writing about actual college football, but until we know we can have actual football, politics and economics have to be our chief concerns. That’s not what I want to focus on, but it’s what we HAVE to deal with.

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