Football As America: Ultimate Test Of Return To ‘Normalcy’

With Labor Day in the rear-view mirror, the national sports focus historically turns to football.  And even in this most atypical of years, what is about to unfold will be, on so many fronts, a reflective litmus test of the overall American landscape.

If we think back to late March, a smattering of COVID-19 diagnoses saw the sports world fall like dominoes, as most leagues frenetically pivoted to salvage some semblance of a season. Concurrently, football almost defiantly stayed distant from discussions of bubbles, games without fans and daily COVID testing protocols.

In its ordained place at the top of the American sports psyche, football in all its forms initially remained outwardly impervious to the pain and disruption that has ravaged the sports economy. As evidenced by research and in lockstep with the public posturing of football’s governing bodies, fan anticipation and content consumption continued to build. There was always this quiet confidence that things would proceed as planned come fall.

Now, fall is coming soon, and kickoff is upon us, with a litany of different approaches and scenarios. The NFL has largely left it to individual teams and local regulators to address live attendance.  In its wake we have a handful of teams that said there will be no fans in-venue all season.  The majority have banned fan attendance for at least the first couple of home games, while there are also a few teams  planning to go forward with at least limited attendance from the start.

In the college ranks, we also have a patchwork of responses, from fully canceled and dramatically altered schedules to the quietly but meticulously executed UAB home opener, this past weekend, where 12,000+ socially distanced spectators attended.

The high profile Big 10 and Pac12 conference season cancellations have spawned significant uproars, to the point that both conferences have now signaled pivots from their initial position, amid optimism for what outgoing PAC12 commissioner Larry Scott has deemed “a game changer” in the planned late September rollout of a rapid-response COVID test.

Interestingly, research conducted just a week ago shows an even split in opinion among fans who feel either that these conference cancellations were appropriate — or a big mistake.  A few weeks earlier, research showed just as many football fans saying they would be more upset by the cancellation of the season than if their preferred candidate lost the presidential election.

More so, perhaps than even Major League Baseball’s navigation amid the inevitable positive COVID tests and the recently amplified insertion of social and political messaging into the games themselves, what is about to happen on football fields across the country is in so many ways reflective of the overall bifurcation of American public opinion and behavior.  How we react to it, cover it and follow it will have pervasive implications for society as a whole and our collective path forward in the COVID era.