Sports

College football’s day of reckoning stings like no other

This was always the day that was going to cause the most dread among a preponderance of sporting citizens. Maybe not around here: New York City, after all, hasn’t been much of a college football town since Fordham’s Seven Blocks of Granite were terrorizing visitors to the Polo Grounds in the ’30s, since West Point’s Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside were taking on all comers at Yankee Stadium in the ’40s.

Everywhere else? College football isn’t just a sport, and it’s not only too sacrilegious to say it’s religion but almost too minimizing. Autumn Saturdays reside in the bloodstream of millions of Americans, inhabit the central nervous system, dwell in hearts and lungs and brains and voice boxes.

You can be a fan of a professional team.

But a college team, in a college town, is who you are. It is who your family is, who your grandparents were, who your children and grandchildren will be … even for those who actually get their educations elsewhere. If you are born into the colorful swirl of State College, Pa., or Tuscaloosa, Ala., or Ann Arbor, Mich., or Lincoln, Neb., it is part of your DNA.

And from the moment sports shut down in the middle of March, for all the talk (and thus far successful execution) of bubbles, for all the protocols (successful, failed and otherwise) of baseball’s restart, and for all the uber measures being taken to make the NFL happen, this was always a looming day of reckoning.

A day like Tuesday, when the 14 members of the Big Ten announced they were canceling fall sports, football the chief victim. There is talk of a spring season. But that’s many months — and many unanswered questions — in the future.

“We believe there is too much uncertainty to encourage our athletes to participate in fall sports,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said. The Big Ten was the first Power Five conference to fall; the Pac-12 joined hours later. The SEC, ACC and Big 12 remain in an odd limbo, pulled between the visceral wanting of games and the uncertainty to which Warren spoke. And Warren also offered one other truth that is impossible to forget right now.

“These are not professionals,” Warren said. “They are amateur athletes and they deserve to play in a safe manner.”

Scenes like this at Michigan Stadium won’t be seen any time soon.AP

In Knoxville, Tenn., one glorious morning in 1992, a man was surrounded as he walked toward Neyland Stadium, and it didn’t take long to realize it was Johnny Majors — walking along Johnny Majors Drive … in Baton Rouge, La., early one evening in 2014, a group of besotted purple-and-gold-clad revelers came to a dead stop at the passing sight of a most revered icon: Mike VI, the full-grown tiger mascot of LSU … In West Point one Saturday in 1993, an old Brigadier General named Pete Dawkins was carried on the shoulders of the Corps of Cadets to celebrate the 35th anniversary of his most glorious victory, the Heisman Trophy …


Warren’s point is the one that, logically and morally, makes it impossible to dispute any sport, conference or team that frets about playing right now. We can joke all we want about big-time college sports; even the beneficiaries of the most clever rule-bending programs don’t command what pro athletes do. Ostensibly they play for room and board while their schools make millions.

Of course, many want to play. It is hard not to feel a tug at your heart when you read about Joe Burrow, last year’s Heisman winner at LSU. Burrow went from a mid-round afterthought to the No. 1 pick in the draft by having a senior year crafted out of a dream.

“I feel for all college athletes right now,” Burrow tweeted Monday. “I hope their voices are heard by the decision-makers. If this happened a year ago I may be looking for a job right now.”

But there was also this tweet from Indiana University freshman lineman Brady Feeney, whose mother took to Facebook to detail her son’s difficult battle with COVID-19, which apparently led to a heart complication:

“Covid-19 is serious. I never thought that I would have serious health complications from this virus, but look at what happened. We need to listen to our medical experts.”

As with much of this pandemic, of course, different experts have different opinions. The Pac-12 and Big Ten reportedly received “eye-opening” accounts from scientists, but on Tuesday, Dr. Cameron Wells, an infectious disease specialist at Duke, told Sports Business Daily, “We believe we can mitigate it down to a level that makes everyone safe.”

That, of course, begs this question: is “We believe” enough?


In South Bend, Ind., it is not unusual for first-time visitors on football Saturdays to be stunned by what seems dozens of impromptu “stick-ups” — until they realize the folks in the blue and gold (and sometimes green) are posing in front of Touchdown Jesus … in Piscataway, N.J., football players often touch for luck the feet of a statue on game days commemorating the first football game ever played — Nov. 6, 1869, Rutgers 6, Princeton 4 …


We are a pro town, yes, but so many of us in New York have strong attachments to college football — alums who build weekends around football pilgrimages, parents who become devoted to Clemson/Boston College/Syracuse, figuring fandom is the least they can buy for the huge tuition checks they write. I didn’t go to a football school but I married into LSU, and I have a cousin who’s a freshman football player at Michigan.

So we have a stake, too. And a large part of us hurts today and may hurt more if the other conferences follow suit. It is the same inner struggle we’ve fought for five months, the war between what we want and what’s best for the country, without a definitive answer to what that is.

Someday, maybe, those two elements will match up again. On that, we all have the same rooting interest.

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