The immediate concern, then, should be for the 21 players and two staff members in Mullen’s program who tested positive this week for the coronavirus, not to mention Alabama Coach Nick Saban, perhaps the sport’s most prominent figure. But even if the news has overtaken Mullen’s original comments coming out of his team’s loss at Texas A&M — “Hopefully, the UF administration decides to let us pack the Swamp against LSU” — those words are hard to forget.
Flip on college football in the fall of 2020 and it can be enthralling — until the camera pans to the stands, and it becomes concerning. Look, that student is smiling because the Longhorns scored. Wait, I shouldn’t be able to see the smile. Where’s her mask? There’s something incongruent about the behavior we’re being told matters for the greater good and the behavior on display in the stands at the ol’ alma mater.
“Those of us who watch sporting events, we feel dismay at some of the crowd shots that we see,” said Michael Huey, a member of the American College Health Association’s coronavirus task force and a former president of the ACHA. “We see people not wearing masks or wearing the masks improperly and looking like they’re all standing pretty close together and not necessarily looking like they’re all from the same family unit or living space.”
Seven months after the original shutdown of major sporting events, we have reached the point at which previously foreign actions have morphed into absolute norms. Avoid someone on a sidewalk and it’s being responsible, not rude. Have you watched a movie recently as an effort to escape, only to see a crowd scene? The reaction in the moment: “What the heck are they doing?” Then you realize that oh, yeah, hey, it’s just a movie, and it wasn’t made in 2020, and they don’t have to socially distance. Phew.
That’s the same with sports as fans gradually reappear. Through the summer of bubbles in the NBA and NHL and baseball games with cardboard cutouts instead of concessionaires, competition without fans was novel and eerie until it became expected and normal. Now there’s the readjustment to watching a game with a crowd. It’s most pronounced in college football.
I can draw some measure of delight as, say, Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger slithers through the Oklahoma defense and then shudder at the ensuing stadium shot. There are fans who are required to wear masks not wearing them at all. There are fans who are required to maintain distance between each other leaning all over their pals in celebration. There are fans in 2020 acting like fans in any other year.
Maybe I’m being overly cautious. We don’t, after all, have any evidence — yet — that a quarter-full college football stadium has led to an outbreak. Maybe I should go to a game and sit with people I know. Maybe it’s okay to lower my mask if it’s hot.
Maybe Dan Mullen was right?
“A game is a perfect setup for aerosolization, just like a choir practice,” Huey said by phone Wednesday. “You’ve got people singing fight songs. You’ve got people yelling and cheering simultaneously. They chant. You high-five strangers. There are many things that increase the risk of being in a closely packed crowd that make a stadium even more at-risk than a closely packed crowd watching a movie.”
“Absolutely want to see 90,000 in The Swamp,” he said, well before his team’s outbreak. “I don’t think the section behind our bench, I didn’t see an empty seat. It was packed. The student section, there must have been 50,000 behind our bench going crazy.”
Mullen somewhat walked that back Wednesday. Still, casting the situation as a detriment to his team and not a public health concern is an interesting choice. But then, football coaches have been self-quarantining for decades, walling themselves off in endless film sessions to the point where a detachment from reality becomes almost expected. And so, with college football attempting to play through a pandemic — and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) opening the gates and irresponsibly encouraging full capacity — here we are, a barrel full of contradictions, with some football coaches pleading for exciting environments rather than actual expertise.
This isn’t all about Mullen, either. The Big Ten’s football season will open Oct. 24, and the conference has pledged to conduct the entire season with no fans other than the families of players and staff. The response at Nebraska: host a watch party at the school’s indoor basketball arena for the opener against Ohio State. Admission: free. Masks: required. Busch Lights: $3, but get ’em early because they go up to $4 after kickoff!
As sports fans and citizens, we should probably get up every day and ask, “What do public health experts say we should be doing?” And that doesn’t mean, necessarily, don’t go to games. Outdoor stadiums, Huey said, offer plenty of advantages — several levels, air currents moving through, fans spaced out and generally remaining in one spot. According to a group of researchers at Davidson College, just eight of the 65 Power Five schools are allowing as many as 20,000 fans at home football games, none more than 25,600. Even before the outbreak among the Gators, Florida had pledged to keep its crowds limited to 17,000. Decisions based not on crowd noise but on controlling the virus? There’s sense and sanity in that.
“The current approach of having small groups physically spaced in an outdoor large open area certainly decreases the risk,” Huey said. “Seventeen thousand makes a lot more sense than 90,000 or 50,000 or 30,000. And you could argue that 17,000 makes less sense than 5,000. The closer you pack those people together, the more the risk is going to increase.”
More than any, this college football season requires responsible personal behavior and informed individual choices. That’s true for players, and it’s true for fans. Huey, himself, is one. He lives in Gainesville, Fla. For eight years, he served as Florida’s team doctor. He has held Gators season tickets for 26 years. This year, he opted out. In 2020, it doesn’t make sense to pack the Swamp, and despite what we see in the stands on Saturdays, how fans behave will help determine whether this season is a success.