I’m assuming you come here to read about Clemson sports because you like to watch college sports. I know that I do, and have since I can remember. Before I was in any way associated with this school I looked forward to watching games on Saturday and half watched MAC games during weeknight homework. In a very formative way I found communities, both in person and online, from playing, watching and talking about college football. Fall Saturdays have been the highlight of my year for years.
I didn’t feel like that in 2020. I had misgivings about this season as early as last spring, and tried to talk about it then. As the season rolled along and my other job got busier, I tried to sublimate that worry into things I could control. I tried to focus on taking things a day at a time and ignoring the nagging concerns as virus rates soared around the nation.
This Saturday I was watching football when I saw that Florida’s star basketball player, Keyontae Johnson, had collapsed on the floor during a game against rival FSU. My mind went to an article by Dr. Jordan Metzl, a former college soccer player and a nationally recognized sports physician. His website calls himself, “the athlete’s doctor”. You can see him leading cold weather workouts in Central Park on his twitter feed. He is as likely as anyone to understand the realities of exercise and the coronavirus.
Back in November Dr. Metzl wrote the headline in the New York Times, “Exercise After COVID-19? Take It Slow”. In the article he describes multiple stories of elite athletes struggling to recover from COVID-19, and some recreational athletes nearly or actually dying from attempting to return to exercise after feeling recovered. The two main drivers appear to be blood clots and myocarditis.
As his parents flew out to be with him, it was hard not to worry that Johnson, in critical but stable condition at a local hospital, may have been one such case. The Florida basketball team had an outbreak over the summer and it is possible, but unknown, if Johnson tested positive.
There is also the question of where those COVID-19 tests are coming from, and who is going untested while we put college athletes through rigorous testing. Last month, registered nurses in Los Angeles protested the fact that UCLA’s athletic department conducted 1,248 tests in a single week while healthcare workers at UCLA hospitals were denied testing. As one nurse described the disparity,
“These athletes and teams have a stockpile of COVID testing, enough to test them at will, and it’s painful to watch. It seemed like nobody else mattered or their lives are more important than ours.”
Many workplaces still do not offer COVID-19 testing to frontline workers during the pandemic. Meanwhile in many programs college athletes are tested 3-4 times per week.
That’s not to act like players have enjoyed this either. The sacrifices they’ve made this season have been immense. With many programs opting out of bowl season (and not just to evade the NCAA) citing exhaustion. As Boston College’s AD put it, “They haven’t been able to get a hug from mom or dad or grandma and grandpa in months. That’s real”. Boston College’s head coach Jeff Halfley had earlier chosen to reward his players for their hard work, not with a vacation, but with a well earned respite.
Jeff Hafley said the reward of a bowl experience is typically a week away with your friends. But this year that's not the case. "The biggest reward we could give this team was let them finish finals and go spend time with their families."— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) December 10, 2020
I’m not going to act like I haven’t enjoyed some of this season. It’s still football, there have been a handful of excellent games that have risen from the muck this year. But it’s been more muck than rise, with players opting out and games getting cancelled every week. Can anyone blame the teams that looked at their seasons and semesters ending, infection rates soaring across the country, and deciding to go home?
I’m not here to argue about whether or not this season should have happened. It was always going to be, the amount of money on the line and the decision makers involved made that inevitable, and it already has been. I’m here to ask if any of us feel like, at the end of a year that has turned to ashes in our mouths, all of this has been worth it.