George Clessuras '22
As the 2020 National Football League (NFL) season has reached its midpoint, it is unknown whether football fans will see the completion of a traditional sixteen game season or not. League commissioner Roger Goodell expressed confidence throughout the summer that the original schedule including eight home games and eight away games for each team would be fulfilled, yet I was skeptical. I watched Major League Baseball struggle to contain various COVID-19 outbreaks and adjust its sixty game schedule, resulting in over 40 postponed games. So, I was not optimistic that football, a contact sport with an average roster size almost twice that of a baseball team, could make it through the season unless Goodell reverted to a bubble model. However, as of early November, the league has indeed made its way to the halfway mark of the season.
It is probably more accurate to say that the NFL has stumbled its way to this point. As professional football passes it’s ninth week, half of the NFL’s 32 teams are dealing with a COVID-19 case within their respective organizations , and a plethora of games have been reassigned for different weeks, resulting in a jumbled scheduling puzzle. A number of prime-time games, in both the NFL and the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS, college football’s most competitive division) have been played without notable players due to COVID-19 protocols. Just this past weekend, in the highly anticipated matchup between the Clemson Tigers and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Tigers were without their standout quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The event made national headlines not only for its thrilling overtime finish, but also for the controversy that occurred after the final whistle, as thousands of Notre Dame students rushed onto the gridiron and formed a dense crowd that covered almost the entire field. The incident has sparked new discussions about the justification for playing football in the first place amidst the pandemic. People question the optics of holding large competitions—often with thousands of spectators in attendance—while cases are once again on the rise in this country. It is important to note that although this incident of football fans defying COVID-19 guidelines has garnered the most public attention, it certainly is not an isolated incident in the sport. The NFL and FBS teams are struggling to contain outbreaks within their locker rooms, and stadium employees are struggling to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing among fans. Why, then, in the midst of a surging pandemic, is it so important that these leagues find a way to finish their seasons? Why is this something a casual fan, or even one who doesn’t watch sports at all, should care about?
Historically, the sport of football has been a rallying symbol of strength during some of our country’s darkest hours and has captured the spirit of American determination. While it may seem excessive to attribute so much meaning to a game, the truth is that America loves football and has turned to gameday not only for a source of entertainment, but also for a source of hope.
After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, locals poured into New Orleans Saints’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome, serving as a sanctuary for thousands . With flood waters unwavering in this landmark American city, it seemed that the town’s beloved franchise was ready to pack up its bags and relocate. However, when the state of Louisiana needed a beacon of inspiration, it was a football game, in the very stadium that sheltered so many distressed families, that uplifted the entire region. The New Orleans Saints’ electric return to the superdome in 2006 represented the resilience of the city and highlighted the immense capacity of football to unify. The image of Steve Gleason’s iconic blocked punt from that very game is permanently enshrined outside of the superdome in the form of a statue appropriately titled “Rebirth.”
In 2007, the Virginia Tech Hokies took the field for the first time since the horrific shooting that claimed the lives of 32 students and faculty members . While their offense struggled for much of the contest, the energy in Lane Stadium that afternoon was unparalleled. “I’ve run out there a bunch of times and it’s been loud, but I don’t think I’ve ever known it to be more loud,” recalled former head coach Frank Beamer .
Obviously, a football game cannot expunge the damage of Hurricane Katrina, nor can it erase the grief of those who lost a loved one in the Virginia Tech shooting, but a mysterious healing power does lie on the gridiron. And while some have questioned the message sent out by playing professional and collegiate football in the midst of a pandemic and great suffering, I would argue that we have never needed football more.
Football serves as a safe haven from the politically polarizing social climate that ravages our country as well. Football connects people of different backgrounds, races, genders, and ages. Ultimately, football makes our incredibly abnormal year seem a little more normal. So, while I am not optimistic about the prospect of finishing an NFL or FBS season without major interruptions, especially as cases continue to rise, I implore every NFL organization, every collegiate team, every sports fan, and every American to comply with guidelines and wear masks for the safety of this country and, if for no other reason, for the sake of football.