The Slatest

The South Needs to Get Its Act Together if It Wants to Save Football Season

DeSantis, wearing a blue suit and surrounded by members of the media, speaks into a stand of microphones that have been set up outdoors.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Pensacola on Dec. 6, 2019. Josh Brasted/Getty Images

Reactions to the coronavirus have varied state by state and city by city, and not always on partisan lines. Republican governors in Indiana and Ohio have ordered residents to stay indoors, while some Democratic governors in the Northeast have not; Democratic New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio’s resistance to closing public spaces may have contributed to the disastrous spread of cases in the country’s worst hot spot.

The Deep South, though, is seemingly on the verge of a major outbreak—3,600 known cases in Florida, 2,200 in Georgia—and is almost uniformly controlled by Republican governors who have adopted Donald Trump’s empirically deranged insistence that the country is almost ready to go “back to work.” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster have overridden local authorities who issued stay-at-home orders, while Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey insisted Friday that such measures are not necessary in her state despite a per-capita rate of infection higher than California’s. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis refused to close the state’s beaches until after spring break season had ended.

This attitude threatens the health and lives of the South’s residents, but also jeopardizes something even more important to them: college football season. Though games aren’t scheduled to begin until the end of August, a number of coaches have said that they don’t think that will be feasible unless their players can begin working out together by July 1. (Teams are typically allowed to hold practices during the spring semester and gather players for summer conditioning, but the major college football conferences are currently prohibiting all team activities.) But even Mike Pence has said that “we could well be dealing with coronavirus cases in the United States well into July.” And as demonstrated when the NBA season was suspended but March Madness was cancelled outright, pro leagues can be more flexible than the NCAA, whose competition schedules are tied to the academic calendar. College football’s season is also shorter than the NFL’s, with the bulk of games played before December.

GIF telling fans to stay apart if they want a football season next fall, with X's and O's moving apart from two arrows.

The level of cross-country travel required in the modern, nationalized college game also means that competition can’t take place until every state has coronavirus controlled: The University of Alabama, for example, is supposed to start its season Sept. 5 in a neutral-site game against the University of Southern California in Arlington, Texas. Clemson has an early-season matchup in Massachusetts against Boston College, while Florida State visits Boise State in Idaho. If the virus is still circulating, those games—and corresponding travel by tens of thousands of fans to each one—could create American versions of the Feb. 19 “Game Zero” Champions League soccer match, played between Italian and Spanish clubs in Milan, that one Italian doctor has since called a “biological bomb.” Holding games in empty stadiums would reduce the risks involved—but in a sport that requires large rosters, extensive support staff, and constant physical contact, it wouldn’t eliminate them. And would college football without crowds or tailgating really even be college football?

Fans could exert collective control over their own future ability to gather in public, though, by staying home now. One model created for New York Times writers Nick Kristof and Stuart Thompson suggested that a three-month nationwide “social distancing” shutdown could all but eradicate the virus by June. Perhaps figures like Alabama coach Nick Saban and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney—who are, technically, public employees, and who make more than $8 million more each year than Kay Ivey and Henry McMaster, respectively—could do some good by reminding their followers that, right now, self-sacrifice and teamwork aren’t just important for winning games, but for getting them played in the first place.