Pandemic Life at the Most Football-Mad College in America

An empty University of Alabama campus.
Molly Olmstead

On a humid, 90-degree day in early September, students at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa willed themselves to feel normal. They lounged on blankets on the quad. Between classes, they lined up at a smoothie bowl truck. A group of freshmen shared class schedules and complained about boys in muffled voices. As sweat dampened their foreheads, they resisted tugging down their masks.

When asked how it felt to be the first new class of the COVID-19 pandemic, several of the freshmen expressed relief. They were happy to be at college, and they didn’t grumble about the lack of on-campus events, or the online classes, or even the prospect of being placed in one of the dreary isolation dorms. “There was a lot of sympathy from the older classes that our freshman year is this whole COVID situation,” a freshman named John told me.

For the older students, it was hard not to notice just how eerily empty the campus was—“like the middle of summer,” one upperclassman said. Except for those who live in sorority or fraternity houses, juniors and seniors largely stayed off campus, trekking in for the occasional lab or discussion class. Every day was a reminder of just how strange it felt to be a student attending in-person classes this fall. And it may be strangest for students at large state schools like my alma mater, the University of Alabama, where football shapes the school’s identity.

To be a college student at Alabama this fall is to be, as the New York Times put it, a participant in a “high-stakes experiment.” UA is not the only large state school still holding classes in person, but it’s chosen to carry on when other schools would’ve put live instruction on pause. The first week that the university publicly released its COVID numbers, 562 students had tested positive. Students complained that they couldn’t get through to UA’s COVID hotline to find out what to do when they got a positive result. The school scrambled to free up resources, even kicking students out of one dorm to convert it into an isolation ward. Students placed in COVID dorms told reporters that they weren’t given any information or care and received only sad, small meals. Professors opened their emails one day to find a warning from the administration not to tell their students if one of their classmates had tested positive. (The University of Alabama did not respond to an emailed list of questions about the university’s COVID response.)

In recent weeks, the number of positive tests has trended down. But many on campus worry the situation is precarious. Parties are thought to be a major source of campus outbreaks, and the University of Alabama is the No. 1 party school in the nation. The state itself has a fairly high infection rate, which means students visiting home might return to campus with COVID. And football season has only just begun.

Students and faculty told me that as long as there was football and as long as there were students on campus, it was naive to expect better numbers. College football is more popular here than anywhere else in America, and fans traveled from all over the state to Bryant-Denny Stadium for the first home game last weekend. According to reports from the game, roughly half of the students who attended took their masks off. And many who couldn’t land tickets headed to bars and restaurants (limited to 50 percent capacity) to watch. One bar located near the stadium was shut down for occupancy violations. The fans in the stadium may have been thankful for whatever scraps of a game day they could get, but other students have been left wondering if it’s all worth it—if the massive effort to replicate the college experience was ever the right way to go.

A very sparsely-filled courtyard at the University of Alabama.
Molly Olmstead

At the start of the semester, students made bets with each other about the exact date they’d get sent home. Professors, who felt barely more informed, saw schools that were grappling with less daunting infection numbers suspend in-person classes. “We were at 500 [positive tests],” said Michael Innis-Jiménez, the director of graduate studies in the Department of American Studies. “And that was double what it took for UNC to shut down or Notre Dame to shut down.”

But the university didn’t bend. On Aug. 18, the faculty senate asked the administration to identify the threshold at which the university would go fully online, and the school’s higher-ups responded by saying only that they were “monitoring multiple data points.” On Aug. 19, the first day of classes, the New York Times reported on an expensive, high-tech system that the University of Alabama System had developed to track cases and predict outbreaks. Some concerned parents found comfort in this news, as it seemed the university was investing heavily in student safety and equipping itself to make informed decisions. But some faculty members questioned the university’s motivations, thinking that all the money they’d sunk into reopening meant that cancelling classes was never going to be an option.

The university’s plan had four key pieces: test students two weeks before their arrival; randomly test a small sample of students periodically (known as “sentinel testing”); use an app to conduct contact tracing and have students enter health data every three days; and isolate students living on-campus who test positive. Critics quickly pointed to the plan’s limitations: the long lag times, the high bar to be flagged by contact tracing, and the limited ability to regulate the behavior of students who lived off campus.

Early results supported the critics: After one week, there were 562 positive tests for students. After three weeks, that number jumped to nearly 1,900. Even then the university said it would stay the course. “The risk in closing a college campus and forcing thousands of students home at once is that the virus then has the opportunity to spread more widely to other geographic locations and possibly more vulnerable populations,” the university system said in a press release.

“So what they’re pretty much saying is, We’re going to turn Tuscaloosa into a bubble, where the hot spot is going to continue to grow,” Innis-Jiménez said. “That scares a lot of Tuscaloosa. That scares a lot of students.”

In a meeting with the faculty senate a month into classes, the university’s vice president for finance and operations explained the financial incentives for having students remain on campus. If students were sent home immediately, UA would lose $25 million in housing, dining, and parking fees; if they didn’t keep students at least until Oct. 5, they would lose $18.5 million. A public university has five main sources of money: state funding, tuition, investments, donations, and auxiliary services, which include merchandise, sports, and the expenses of living on campus. Over the decades, state funding for public universities has shrunk nationwide, pushing schools to become more financially self-reliant. In the 2018-2019 academic year, UA made $202 million from auxiliary services, about 18 percent of its annual revenue. Without in-person classes to keep students on campus, the university stood to lose a critical profit center.

There’s another way the university compensates for stingy state funding: out-of-state tuition. More than half of the student body at Alabama is from out of state, a proportion that’s steadily increased over the last two decades. A UCLA professor called Alabama “far and away the extreme” when it comes to recruiting out-of-state students, noting that the school received three times more in out-of-state tuition than in-state funding. Early reports indicate that out-of-state enrollment has decreased by nearly 7 percent during the pandemic. With out-of-state tuition three times the cost of that for in-state students, that’s a substantial hit to the school’s bottom line.

A "mask up" sign on a mostly empty University of Alabama campus.
Molly Olmstead

You can’t talk about Alabama, and money, without talking about football. Football is such an essential part of the fabric of the university that when the school was looking for someone to run their COVID hotline and concierge service—providing meals and supplies for quarantining students—it turned to the events company that handles traffic and crowds on game days.

Those game days don’t look the same this year. Alabama has prohibited tailgating and is filling only 20 percent of the seats in its stadium. (States, conferences, and schools have taken different approaches to the issue. Many universities have banned fans entirely.) Students get 20 percent of the available seats, allotted proportionally by seniority. A freshman named Kalynn told me that while she decided to come to UA in large part because of football, she probably wouldn’t go to any games this year—students enter a lottery to get tickets, and even if she was one of the roughly 600 freshmen who got one, she wouldn’t be able to bring any friends along. A junior named Elizabeth said her main complaint with the university was how it was handling football. “Many out-of-town guests will still descend on Tuscaloosa, bringing their germs with them,” she wrote in a message. “If the university actually prioritized its students, we would make up more than 20 percent of the crowd at football games.”

A number of students told me they believed that football was a key factor in the decision to keep students on campus. The football program typically makes a profit of around $45 million per year, though it brought in a below-average $25.5 million in 2019, a year in which the Crimson Tide failed to make the College Football Playoff for the first time since its inception. A significant portion of that money comes from media rights from televised games, but ticket sales—non-student tickets can go for hundreds of dollars in even non-pandemic years—are a top revenue source. On top of that, there’s merchandise and the sponsorships.

And then there are the indirect benefits to the university. Generations of Alabamians are drawn to the university because they’ve grown up watching Crimson Tide football on television. If you ask out-of-state and sometimes even international students why they chose to attend the 65th-ranked public school in America, many will tell you it’s because it seemed like a quintessentially Southern experience, with football and Greek life and the partying that comes with it. There are Alabamians who live their lives around football season, Alabamians for whom it is their one big annual expense. Alabama has no professional sports—it’s just college football. Which means that football was inevitable this fall.

Alabama’s athletic department has not made its COVID policies fully public, but it has said it tests its players three times a week and screens them daily for symptoms. “We’ve had a minimal amount of players that tested positive, but we have had some,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said early in September. “We haven’t had any players that are really bad sick from this.” Jerome Adams, the surgeon general of the United States, appeared on video to promise the players that they were “very lucky to have the resources of the Alabama athletic department” and that their risk “is likely to be very low, and lower than your risk would be if you were back home in your community.”

Even if Alabama’s games seed no outbreaks, the sport itself faces hard questions. The virus is exposing deeper, long-standing issues in the sport. During the summer, 30 UCLA players threatened to boycott promotional activities until the university agreed to a list of COVID safety demands. Clemson’s star quarterback Trevor Lawrence led other players in calling for universal safety procedures and the ability for players to opt out of playing without tanking their careers.

A number of Alabama players joined the #WeWantToPlay movement, expressing their desire for the season to move forward. But they skirted the larger questions around amateurism, and whether it would be appropriate for colleges to continue playing football if other students weren’t on campus. But that makes it harder for universities to maintain the pretense that players are students first and therefore shouldn’t be paid for their role in the multi-billion dollar industry.

Still, college football’s defenders argue that its benefits—including keeping bored and miserable students happy—outweigh the risks. “Football matters; it’s a huge factor in peoples’ lives,” said Christopher Lynn, an anthropology professor at the school. “Faculty are cynical about football, but they don’t understand how many students come to Alabama because they don’t know where they want to go to college, but they know it’s fun.”

A quiet path on the University of Alabama campus.
Molly Olmstead

This is what it looked like to be a rule-following freshman during the first few weeks at the University of Alabama. You sat through lectures on Zoom. You sat through classes in empty lecture halls, where professors stood behind plexiglass barriers. You picked up meals to-go from the dining hall. You passed by closed-off dorm common areas. You went to a painting night on Zoom to meet the other freshmen. You heard stories of dreary, isolating COVID dorms. You heard noises from parties in other rooms. You hung out with two or three new friends, in your room. If you needed to go to the library, you scheduled a time online and were allowed four hours. If you were in a sorority, you had Zoom calls with individual sisters in the hopes of meeting them in person at some point. You gamed out your strategy for requesting football tickets, or you contemplated the idea of an extremely small and quiet watch party.

“I really didn’t know if I really wanted to be here, because it was so boring,” Kalynn said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know why I signed up to come to college.’ ”

Classes, too, looked different. Matthew Wielicki, a geology professor, said in his class of 103, he typically has 10 students; his wife’s 110-person class will have six or seven. There are many students who have made remote schooling workable; the university offers online versions of every class for students who request it. But some students I spoke to said that taking the school up on that offer isn’t always realistic, either because certain classes aren’t well suited to online learning, or because getting permission for remote learning from the disabilities office, as some professors require, is just enough of a hurdle to deter them.

The freshmen I spoke with said they followed the rules they were given, avoided all but the smallest gatherings, and largely trusted the university to keep them safe. The administration has taken a somewhat punitive approach to dealing with gatherings. Three weeks into the semester, the school reported sanctioning three student organizations and 639 students—suspending 33—for violating COVID guidelines. Still, the chaos in the rollout created gaps in enforcement. A student who works for university housing told me that he never received any updates from the administration on COVID policies. “Students come by and ask if the study rooms are open or the game rooms and I have to tell them simply I don’t know,” he said. “Nobody bothers to tell us these things.” Brooke, a junior, said she had noticed that the number of parties in her building has “gone up drastically.” The city temporarily shut down bars for two weeks in late August, but they have reopened. On Aug. 16, just before classes started, photos circulated on social media of bars packed for a Greek life event, prompting the university to close sorority and fraternity houses to all except those who lived there and those who had meal plans (to-go only) there. To some students, the administration’s actions were harsh but justified, as some blamed their peers, too. “I am disappointed in a lot of their behaviors,” Brooke said. “I think there’s an expectation that when you’re in college you’re an adult, and you need to act like one.”

Many older students, however, tend to be more frustrated with the administration, particularly after living through an abrupt and messy shutdown in the spring. Meredith, a senior who lives in a sorority house and who has a medical condition putting her at higher risk, said she felt the university wasn’t doing enough to keep COVID-positive students away from the rest of the student body. “Most people I know think we shouldn’t have gone back this semester,” she said. “I want to be here, especially because it’s my senior year. But I feel like there’s not enough measures being taken.”

Early in the semester, as the university tried frantically to control the narrative around the case numbers, the school president, Stuart Bell, sent a scolding email to the student body. “While we are appreciative to those who have taken these expectations seriously, I am deeply disappointed that those guidelines are not being followed by each and every member of our student body,” he wrote. These statements infuriated some faculty members. “The easy blame is, It’s the students,” said Innis-Jiménez. “But the fact that there’s this great plan that didn’t take into consideration that there’s going to be socializing in college—they would have known that.”

Still, since mid-September, the weekly positive test counts have been in the double digits. On Oct. 1, the university announced that there had been just 24 positive tests that week. (The latest numbers on the dashboard show a slight increase.) What’s really caused the decline in cases? For one thing, it’s not absolutely clear that there is a decline. The school hasn’t released the number of tests it’s administered, and without that context, experts say, the numbers tell us little. “A decrease like that with such high numbers to start is almost impossible,” Dr. Susie Welty, a contact tracer with the University of California, San Francisco, said in an email. “Typically we see a slow decline when things are getting under control. I would suspect that this has more to do with their testing program: Who they are testing, or what tests they are reporting.” Some students hope that the spread has slowed because the students themselves have grown less active as they move away from the care-free early days of the semester and into midterms. “The university has talked about how the plans are working,” Brooke, the Alabama junior, told me. “There may be some truth to that. But I think the majority of the cause of cases going down is that the semester is picking up, and students are busier.”

When I spoke with students in September, they said they hoped that the spring semester—in some cases, their last semester as college students—would be more normal. That seems unlikely. Last Wednesday, the university announced that it was canceling spring break.

But football—that’s still cranking. Last Saturday, 4,000 students lined up at the entrance to Bryant-Denny Stadium, in face masks, to see Alabama play Texas A&M. Once the game started, the fans’ cheering sounded thin, as it bounced around a stadium built to seat more than 100,000. Some fans snacked on pre-packaged concessions. A more compact version of the student band played from their seats (on-field performances have been banned). Non-ticket-holding fans who tried to get near the stadium were rebuffed by patrolling security guards. The only sign of normalcy was on the scoreboard: Alabama won the game, 52-24.