The Clock Is Ticking on the 2020 Football Season

April 17, 2020 Updated: April 17, 2020

Commentary

Every popular American sport—baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, golf, tennis—has been shut down by the CCP virus. The lone exception has been football.

This is due entirely to the timing of the pandemic. [Note: There was an intriguing story about timing in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week: The author conjectured that the Kansas Chiefs’ come-from-behind in the Super Bowl might have saved thousands of lives, because if the San Francisco 49ers had won, there would have been a huge, crowded victory parade in San Francisco on the very day that the virus was starting to spread in that community, possibly causing the infection of thousands.]

Since the 2019 season ended on Super Bowl Sunday, the National Football League (NFL) has done everything possible this offseason to maintain an appearance of business as usual. Teams have signed free agents as usual, and the highlight of the pro football offseason—the draft—remains on schedule to be held next Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

That isn’t to say that everything has been completely normal for the NFL in recent weeks. The pandemic put an end to in-person interviews and workouts. NFL teams are scouting the rookie class by remote means and relying more on videos of past performances.

The great hope, of course, has been that the NFL’s season would escape the interruptions suffered by other sports—that the virus would subside or be brought under control in time for teams to practice together this summer and play games on time in September.

Unfortunately, it’s increasingly looking like football will not be able to escape being sidelined by the pandemic; that it will be the last pillar of the professional sports world to fall, thus making the sports shutdown in the United States total.

Social Distancing

There has been considerable doubt for several weeks now whether it would be medically safe for football to proceed as usual this fall.

This week, Los Angeles Rams center Brian Allen has tested positive for the CCP virus; consequently, the outlook for the 2020 season has grown murkier. Playing football—whether practicing plays and strategies with one’s own teammates or competing against opposing teams—is not compatible with social distancing. Instead, physical contact is a primary, ineluctable feature of the sport, with players repeatedly smashing into each other as players engage in hand-to-hand combat and breathing each other’s breath in scrums of jammed-together bodies.

Even before this sad but hardly surprising occurrence, there had been musings and discussions about possibly playing NFL games in empty stadiums (or perhaps with only enough spectators in attendance to fill seats that are six feet apart).

Minnesota Vikings’ quarterback Kirk Cousins was asked on camera by a journalist if players could play without fans in the stands. Poor Cousins answered literally—of course, it’s possible, because players and teams frequently practice without large crowds around. This was a tone-deaf response. Without intending to, Cousins made it sound like he was saying, “We players don’t need the fans.” That, of course, is nonsense.

Apart from the emotional highs that many players get performing live for their fans, players certainly do need the fans. After all, the only reason Cousins and the hundreds of other NFL players earn as much as they do is because of their sport’s avid fanbase.

It would be weird for fans to be at home watching their teams play in quiet, empty stadiums. A passing thought: Perhaps the TV broadcast companies could use canned sound effects—cheers, groans, applause, chants, boos, etc.—comparable to the way old sitcoms used canned laughter. And maybe, through the magic of CGI technology, they could even make it appear as though real people were in the stands. I suppose we could get used to it, but the prospect is deeply unsettling.

Football crowds are a cherished social phenomenon for us Americans. There’s something special about us leaving our families for a few hours to lose ourselves to a herd, to blend into a roaring collective for a few hours, exchanging jubilant high-fives with strangers who may belong to the another political party, or may be from social circles that we never visit, or perhaps are of a race or ethnicity with which we don’t interact in our regular lives. Those fleeting moments of solidarity, of feeling part of a much larger community, have value.

Ramifications

Sadly, the sport of football already has taken a huge hit. The media focus on the NFL draft has obscured the fact that college teams haven’t been able to hold spring practice this year.

The ramifications of this shutdown are far-reaching: Coaches can’t see which of their returning players have improved the most, nor can they see how their freshmen recruits fit in; they can’t do the repeated practices that are necessary to develop the precision timing necessary to make plays work right; and building team chemistry on the field becomes impossible.

In short, if it does turn out to be possible to salvage a 2020 season, teams are likely to have only limited time to practice together before playing either a full or partial portion of their scheduled games. The shorter the college season, the less chance there will be for individuals and teams to “get it together” and make significant improvements, as typically happens over the course of a full season.

Indeed, the negative impact of lost months or a lost season will stretch all the way down through high school, junior high school, to pee-wee football. The football universe in the United States is extensive, and the CCP virus threatens every level of the sport the same way it threatens our entire society: indiscriminately.

Up to now, the prospect of a normal, uninterrupted football season has given many Americans hope for an early return to normalcy. As we all hope and pray for good news about the pandemic to happen earlier rather than later, it now appears that the cultural mainstay that is football will, like so many other cultural favorites, be derailed, although to what extent, we cannot yet know.

Mark Hendrickson, an economist, recently retired from the faculty of Grove City College, where he remains a fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.