“We knew going in, and I think all of us — whether it’s the Big Ten and all the other Power Five conferences — understood what we were getting into when we made the decision to play,” Locksley said by Zoom on Thursday, the day Maryland announced the cancellation of Saturday’s scheduled date with Michigan State. “I don’t think there’s been any surprises with any of us.”
That’s the striking thing about all of this: the norms we now accept. The virus is here. It has killed more than 250,000 Americans. There is not yet an approved vaccine. Football is trying to rage forward. The virus is beating it back — from the SEC to the Pac-12 to the Big Ten and back again. Feel like flipping on the alma mater Saturday? Check the schedule first — and make sure it’s updated.
“As I’ve talked to our team, I’ve assured them that this is not a Maryland thing,” Locksley said. “This is a national landscape thing.”
So what sort of season remains here? Not just for 2-1 Maryland, which has three more scheduled regular season games. Not just for the Big Ten, among the conferences using Elmer’s to hold together its schedule. But in totality.
Over the past three weeks, the virus has wiped out 40 games. That number isn’t carved in granite, either. Wait an hour, then check back for updates. There are bound to be some, particularly because cases are skyrocketing — a million new cases nationwide in a week, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.
“I want to remind everyone that this is not a football-spread virus or a sport-spread virus,” said Yvette Rooks, the assistant director of Maryland’s university health center who is monitoring the athletic department’s testing results. “It is a community-spread virus.”
That is an important thing for all of us to understand. Football isn’t alone in spreading the virus. But football is being played in communities where the virus is spreading. Therefore, an impact on the sport is all but inevitable. It’s another bridge we seem to have crossed: being comfortable staging games as the pandemic worsens rather than improves.
What we’re left with, then, isn’t so much the normal mayhem of a college football season that builds to conference championships. Remember when the biggest controversies surrounded who was ultimately selected for the College Football Playoff? Those were civil, simple times. It would be refreshing to argue whether a two-loss SEC team deserves a spot over a one-loss Big 12 candidate.
Rather, this is just mayhem, period. The games, by this point, are glorified exhibitions. They exist not so much so the young men who play in them and the older men who coach them can learn about teamwork and camaraderie and overcoming adversity. No, they exist because ESPN and Fox and CBS and all their tentacles need programming, period. Not just this fall but headed into a long, cold, gray winter. You only have to hear how television executives refer to games — above all else they are “inventory” — to understand exactly why these contests are being staged.
Or trying to be staged. To this point, 78 college football games have been either canceled or postponed because of the virus. No conference has gone unscathed. Utah hasn’t even played a game. The list of coaches to test positive includes Arizona State’s Herm Edwards — whose team has played just once and won’t play again until at least Nov. 28 — as well as Florida’s Dan Mullen, Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin, UCLA’s Chip Kelly, Purdue’s Jeff Brohm and Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst.
The creativity needed to even pull off a weekend of games now has an air of desperation. When the Pac-12 cobbled together its seven-game season, California and UCLA weren’t supposed to play each other. But when positive cases in the Arizona State and Utah programs caused their games against Cal and UCLA, respectively, to be canceled, the Pac-12 arranged a shotgun marriage: Cal and UCLA at 9 o’clock in the morning on a Sunday.
So much for all the preparation and study football coaches harp on as necessary to so much as kick off against a specific opponent.
In all this, it’s possible to listen to Locksley — soft-spoken, disappointed, working through cold-like symptoms — and feel bad for him and his players and simultaneously to ask, “What’s going on here?” It’s worth noting that none of the head coaches who have tested positive has been hospitalized and several are back working with their teams in person. It’s also worth wondering: To what limit will this be pushed?
“Our goal is to get back,” Maryland Athletic Director Damon Evans said. “I want to be clear with that.”
That’s been the response nationwide: Shut it down when the numbers in a specific program rise; return to the field when they subside. Much more important than a player’s grade on film is his result on a coronavirus test.
This week, the commissioners of the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences, along with Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, met and determined that they would keep the CFP as scheduled — with the semifinals Jan. 1 and the championship game 10 days later. The show must go on — even with unscheduled intermissions. Will it actually happen? At this point, who’s to say?
“I can’t predict the future,” said Rooks, who delves into data daily. “It’s a day-by-day process.”
What’s startling about all this isn’t that Michael Locksley has covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, or that Michigan State and Maryland won’t play Saturday. Best to him and best to his players who are also infected on a speedy and complete recovery. No, what’s startling is the acceptance that the virus not only is tearing through college football but was always going to.
Maybe the season will be completed, in some form or another. But at some point — some point soon — it’s worth asking: To what end?