Sports

The NFL and College Football Are Competing for the Most Absurd COVID Denial in Sports

It’s stubbornness vs. chaos.

Lamar Jackson in his Ravens uniform during a game with his hands out, like, "wtf just happened?" next to a referee with a mask on.
Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson, one of many, many Ravens who has tested positive for the coronavirus, on Nov. 22. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Whatever America’s central problem is, football is probably the best metaphor for it. That’s true no matter which level of football you’re looking at.

Tuesday evening, two stories broke at once:

1. The Baltimore Ravens, who’d already seen their Thanksgiving game against the Pittsburgh Steelers rescheduled twice due to 22 potential COVID cases on the Baltimore roster, reportedly learned while on the plane to Pittsburgh that they’d been practicing (at a “safe distance”) with yet another player who’d tested positive.

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2. Live on air, ESPN college football commentator Kirk Herbstreit proposed that some college teams have been using COVID as an excuse to opt out of difficult games. Herbstreit played quarterback at Ohio State, which might become ineligible to win the Big Ten Championship if one more of its opponents cancels. And he has two sons who play for Clemson, whose head coach, Dabo Swinney, accused Florida State of such alleged cowardice. (Herbstreit later apologized.)

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The decision-makers in one level of football are determined to play every game, no matter the risks and absurdities. Meanwhile, the college side is never intent on anything, leaving difficult choices to coaches and schools with money and pride on the line. If the NFL and college football powers are to be believed, both are going really great.

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The NFL, particularly under commissioner Roger Goodell, has constructed a myth of itself as a last fortress of the Western world; of its franchise owners as anointed civic fathers; of its violence (which also, in the mythos, does not exist) as essential to the national forge; and of its schedule as an ancient festival, something like a four-month Advent that has always led to Super Football Christmas, brought to you by Pepsi. This festival calendar cannot be altered, per the sacred texts, unless to alter it means to add games without paying players much additional money for that additional violence—violence that, again, doesn’t exist.

2020 has asked us all to alter just about everything, however. Some of us—including the NBA and just about every other sports league—have complied. Some of us have not.

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However many players get infected or schedules upended, the NFL is acting as if nothing can change it. Meanwhile, college football is proceeding with seemingly infinite changes. As the coronavirus pandemic ravages both levels of the game, both entities are staying the course, even though those courses run in opposite directions. No matter how ridiculous the consequences, the pros and the college programs are determined that everything can proceed according to their own definitions of “normal,” and that everything will be fine.

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It’s not just the NFL’s $5 billion in annual television revenue that is inspiring the league to keep on keeping on, and it’s not just that even bigger cash hauls are likely on the way. It’s that the NFL acts as if it must be viewed as the load-bearing column of American existence, the one league that did not break or even yield on the matter of delivering 100 percent of its tremendous content.

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“We are hopefully providing our fans a small but welcomed respite from the critical matters at hand with some exciting football news and optimism,” Goodell said in mid-March, when trains-running-on-time NFL free agency was hammering the sports news tickers into complete surreality: “Yet another league has canceled its season due to pandemic … Saints sign DB Deatrick Nichols from XFL, a league that has canceled its season due to pandemic … Yet another league has canceled its season due to pandemic …”

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The NFL’s message to us is that so long as the NFL is holding steady, society is holding steady. That those billions of dollars all end up in one big pile to be divided by those civic fathers, is beside the point. It’s not so much that we love the NFL or want the NFL, but that we need the NFL.

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The NFL must project order, to be defined as fulfilling all objectives no matter the cost. As a result, even moreso than normally, in 2020, the league is completely surreal.

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Two of the NFL’s best teams are playing one of the league’s best rivalry games in a Duke’s Mayo Bowl time slot. That at least is somewhat appropriate, since pandemic-year college football’s decision-makers have hardly acted more reasonably.

College football has its own myths, some of them about twice as old as some of the NFL’s. The oldest and most precious one is also about elevating its rich white guys. Instead of treating them like the NFL’s beneficent owner-demigods, responsible for the league’s and players’ fortunes, college football instead ignores, scandalizes, and criminalizes any serious valuation of its athletes.

For almost two centuries, this has kept costs low in college athletics, and it’s required a lot of effort, from legends to lawsuits. The trick of it, the reason it keeps working, is this: There is no one to blame.

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In the NFL, Goodell is a lightning rod by design. Those 32 statesmen-servants reap the benefits, Goodell gets called mean names on apps he never needs to look at, and the money pile grows. College football has an even more brilliant setup. The NCAA seems like it’s in charge, but it merely oversees a rulebook that ensures athletes can only be paid in store credit. Otherwise, the NCAA runs a few tournaments, including for lower-level football teams, but that’s about it. Instead, college football essentially has no one in charge; the enterprise is “run” by an uncoordinated collection of conferences, coaches, athletic directors, university presidents, and sure, NCAA rent-a-cops. If the NFL’s lie is that it’s being brought to us by 32 responsible adults, college football’s lie is that it has any adults with any responsibility whatsoever.

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So when college football—a decentralized chaos generator—received months of preplanning time ahead of its pandemic season, college football did exactly what college football has always done: Shrugged, assumed someone else would figure something out in time, panicked, spackled together some bullshit at the last minute, and proudly announced that the winner of Nebraska-Purdue would receive the Grand Old Bronze Spackled Bullshit Trophy (not actually real, yet) before wobbling straight into battle.

Literally hundreds of college football teams canceled their seasons, we had a summerlong culture war about the Big Ten and Pac-12 canceling/uncanceling, Notre Dame joined a conference for the first time in its 114 years, and the remaining 127 teams have combined for 108-and-counting midseason schedule changes. While the NFL assures us there is no bomb capable of denting the Shield, college football just keeps molding its thousand-brained-octopus nanobody around the bomb, confident those limbs will grow back or at least be forgettable ones.

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The NFL’s stupid goal is to teach the virus that it cannot deprive of us our freedoms, even if that requires Thursday Night Football, Special Edition: The Following Wednesday Afternoon, After a Different Team Played With Zero Quarterbacks.

But college football is too stupid to have any goals at all, which means countering and raising the NFL’s 2020 headlines with “During pandemic, South Carolina to invest $13 million in making its football coach not do any more work,” “2-5 Charlotte 49ers unable to play their scheduled Tuesday brunch game,” “Cal and UCLA agree to play each other 36 hours from now,” and “No one knows whether Ohio State needs to play any more games in order to make the playoff.”

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Unlike other sports that adapted to 2020 by bubbling in adapted environments, both of our major football systems are still trying to just Be Themselves, out in the open, traveling cross-country and playing in front of 20,000 exhaling Floridians.

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In the NFL, nothing can ever change, and in college football, everything must change all the time. These are the only truths, whether it’s 2020 or not.

Maybe football is denialism: an idea that the dinosaurs were killed not by meteors, but by lack of willpower. The NFL’s order and college football’s chaos feel like opposite approaches to the problem of 2020. But they’ve resulted in equal folly. For each, the only assurance is that everything will turn out awesome.

Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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