In the midst of a stuttering ramble at last week’s debate about what he’d done to control the pandemic, U.S. President Donald Trump was able to pick out one specific example.
“I’m the one who brought back football. By the way, I brought back Big Ten football. It was me and I’m very happy to do it and the people of Ohio are very proud of me,” Trump said.
That was still early in the proceedings, when Joe Biden’s strategy was to chuckle whenever Trump said something bizarre. But that was the one that sucked the wind out of him. He looked like a man just realizing he’d brought a knife to a rhetorical carpet bombing.
Of course, Trump did not bring back Big Ten football. A couple of weeks ago, an unidentified president at one of the 14 universities in the Big Ten told NBC, “President Trump had nothing to do with our decision and did not impact our deliberations.”
But the fact that the school official felt the need to remain anonymous is the more revealing thing here. Football is now definitively in the forward salient of America’s culture war.
Other major sports that managed to restart mid-pandemic had the luxury of setting themselves one task – to stage games without becoming a hot zone.
The NHL and NBA took the bubble route. Both leagues carried it off. You can reasonably argue about whether bubble sports are fun to watch, fun to play in or ought to be tried again. But you can’t argue that bubble sports are possible. Evidently, they are.
Baseball went more loosey-goosey. It eliminated spectators from the equation, but trusted teams to sort out their own safety parameters while they criss-crossed the country.
That went sideways in the early going, when a bunch of Miami Marlins tested positive. The ripple effect from that outbreak interrupted the schedules of several teams. But spurred into resolute action by some awful press, Major League Baseball figured it out.
All these leagues had their single-mindedness in common. More or less effectively, they put public health – or, at least, the perception that public health mattered to them – at the centre of their plans.
Then there’s football.
Why have the vast majority of U.S. college sports been cancelled or delayed? Public health.
Why is football the exception? Money.
Football churns a lot of cash for major college programs (which is not the same thing as turning a profit). Volleyball does not.
Football is also America’s “get ‘er done” sport. The “go hard or go home” sport. When other sports demand that coaches wear masks and that a bare minimum of people be on hand, that’s prudent. When football does it, it’s cowardly.
So football let the fans back in.
On Saturday, the University of Georgia played Auburn. The capacity at Georgia’s stadium is upward of 90,000. Out of respect for COVID, 20,000 were allowed to attend.
Cameras panning the crowd showed that a great many of those 20,000 were rammed in on top of each other. Few of them were wearing masks. Everyone was shrieking and hollering.
There are super-spreader events, and then there was whatever this was. Turbo-spreader? Omni-spreader?
Out on the field, people quickly gave up on even the appearance of care. The referees wear masks. They also pull the masks down to scream in players' faces when they are explaining a call.
Baseball did at least make a decent go at pretending to care about masks. Jays manager Charlie Montoyo went so deep into bank-robber mode that you began to forget over the course of the season what he actually looked like.
But football can’t be bothered to pretend. In Week 1 of the NFL, Raiders coach Jon Gruden was shown repeatedly on TV wearing his mask as a chin-strap, red-faced and bellowing like he was alerting vessels at sea of impending weather.
“I’m very sensitive about all of that and I apologize,” Gruden said afterward. The NFL fined him a hundred grand – one per cent of his annual salary.
A few days later, a bunch of Raiders were photographed at a charity event mingling maskless with attendees.
Gruden took another kick at this whole ‘sensitivity’ shtick (which, if you’ve seen him in action, isn’t really in his personality wheelhouse.)
“I’ll just say this – we’ve done a good job,” the coach said.
If I say to you “football guy,” Gruden might be the first face that pops into your mind. No one so inhabits the ethos, which is connected to a very American type of dynamism. It’s somewhere between “I see the potential in all people” and “If I don’t get some potential from you, I’m going to knock you unconscious with a clipboard.”
Whenever Gruden talks about the limitations COVID is putting on standard operating procedure, his frustration is palpable. I think it’s fair to assume that Gruden’s feelings are fairly widely shared among his peers. Just watch a game. Once the action hots up, no one bothers pretending to care about pandemic protocol.
Inevitably, the NFL hit the unlucky number this week. Eighteen members and counting of the Tennessee Titans have the 'rona. New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton tested positive. The schedule is starting to get backed up. Unlike baseball, the NFL has almost no wiggle room to replay games.
But if they’re going to let unpaid kids play football, then let thousands more kids crowd in to watch them, do you think they’re going to stop because a few hundred millionaires and their hangers-on aren’t playing by the rules?
For a slice of America, doing what you want because you want to is the only rule that matters. These are the people Trump is talking to when he plumes his feathers over the resumption of Ohio State football.
I suppose the done thing now is to raise your hands to God and wail about the drive to self-destruction. But the United States was always thus – heedless, Bacchanalian, unbound by common sense. It’s part of what got it so far ahead of everyone else over the past century. It’s why so many people wanted to move there and still do.
Every once in a while – a war, a pestilence, a depression brought on by rampant consumerism – America is reminded to turn down the volume at the party a bit. This is one of those situations. And not for the first time, the rest of us get to watch it happen on TV.