Thomas: My COVID-Altered Gameday Experience

My freshman year, I woke up on September 14th at 7am to the sound of “Shipping Up to Boston” blaring through the hallways of my dorm. Notre Dame’s home-opener kicked off in 7 ½ hours, yet the atmosphere was already through the roof. Tailgates started as early as 8am, and the despite the fact that the Irish were taking on a massive underdog New Mexico State, it was an ecstatic sell-out crowd of students who packed Notre Dame Stadium for the lopsided clash, which Notre Dame won 66-14.

Flash forward a year (almost) and it’s September 12, 2020, and I woke up at 9:45 to almost complete silence. Notre Dame would kick off their season in just 4 hours and 45 minutes, against the Duke Blue Devils, yet there was no blaring music, no massive crowds filling up the quads, nothing to signify that gameday was here. With a multitude of restrictions in place due to Covid, the opportunity to get properly hyped for the first game of the season was noticeably lacking. Walking through my dorm, the sound of a few speakers could be heard playing in rooms, but with nobody outside your section allowed in your room, there were no raucous pre-game celebrations occurring behind the doors. I walked through campus to pick up a morning breakfast sandwich, startled by the eery lack of noise on campus. Accustomed to the hundred thousand people that flooded my campus on game days, the lack of noise and activity was off-putting. 

However, despite the delayed start, slowly the vibes around campus began to pick up. My roommate and I pumped up our own speakers and starting blasting the Irish gameday classics – Thunderstruck by AC/DC, “Shipping Up to Boston” and “The Boys are Back” by the Dropkick Murphys were a few of our selections. By 11am, we were down on the quad, where the atmosphere was becoming noticeably more active. Rather than the standard view of parking lots packed with cars, tents, grills, food, and beverages, the ‘tailgate’ scene was far more casual. Cornhole, KanJam, and Spikeball games littered the quad, while large Chik-Fil-A orders were brought to various groups. Maybe Notre Dame could ban official tailgaiting, but they damn well were not going to takeaway our gameday chicken nuggets – such an offense would have been close to unforgivable. A “No open containers” policy was only loosely enforced, as ambassadors largely watched to ensure that students were wearing masks and staying in small groups. As gametime got nearer, the excitement was finally becoming palpable. Notre Dame Football was back, and we were getting a chance to watch in person,  a possibility that seemed virtually impossible when Notre Dame switched to online learning from August 19 until September 2nd. 

Entering the stadium was business as usual, and, quite honestly, a lot less chaotic than under normal circumstances. The seating arrangement was obviously different, and for myself, it was very strange. Assigned seats were granted by ‘household’ or rooming assignment, and these seats were spaced around the stadium. I ended up on the south side of the stadium, almost directly across from the standard sophomore student section, giving me a new view of the action. There was ample evidence of fans leaving their assigned seats to sit in small groups, but largely, the crowd was at least fairly distanced. The environment was unique, but not altogether bad. I entered the stadium with very low expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised with the results. The band still led our chants from the bleachers, the best game-day songs still blasted throughout the stadium, and many traditions remained as similar to their old form as possible. The atmosphere did quiet down in the second half, although I attribute that largely to Notre Dame’s struggles to pull away from an inferior Duke team. The game was strange because it never felt like Notre Dame was going to lose, but with zero interceptions on defense and very few explosive offensive plays, the game lacked the standard sizzle to fire up the crowd. 

Despite the ho-hum 27-13 result, the corona gameday experience far exceeded my expectations as a student. The social aspect of the football games was slightly depleted, but still readily available. The general buzz, the willingness to do “touchdown push ups” or sing loudly and off-key to the kickoff song with people you’d never met before that day, still existed, and the camaraderie that has always been an enticing aspect of the Notre Dame football experience for myself, was evident, as we banded together to make the best of a wildly unique gameday situation. Even more promisingly, there has been no massive spike in COVID cases among the team or student body. Notre Dame had two positive cases among over 400 conducted in the days before and after the Duke game. The student body, which made up most of the 15,000+ attendance, has had just 14 positive cases diagnosed of the 1,441 tests conducted since gameday. College football is possible, and it’s happening 

I wasn’t even sure whether I wanted tickets to the Notre Dame games this year – that’s how hesitant I was about how corona would alter the experience. But having tasted Irish football once more, I’m now more than ready for another dose of gameday action. Two days until South Florida comes to town, and Notre Dame’s new gameday normal is put on display once more.

Recent Virus Spikes Should Not Be The Reason To Shut Down College Football

The headlines have been both plentiful and negative this week, as reports of UNC reversing course and shifting to online learning, while Notre Dame did the same, although allowed students to stay on campus – for now. Both situations were caused by significant spikes in COVID-19 cases. UNC reported over 320 cases, with another couple of hundred students quarantined due to contact tracing. Notre Dame’s latest update had 222 confirmed cases as of Wednesday at noon. As with UNC, dozens of other students are currently quarantined. In an email, Notre Dame president Father Jenkins stated that the number of initial cases, just 15 days since freshman arrived on campus, and under two weeks after classes started, exceeded their initial estimates. New campus restrictions were set in place, and the student body is somewhat in limbo regarding their status for the rest of the semester. At UNC, most students are returning home. However, at both schools, sports, notably football, remains largely unhindered.

Notre Dame did not practice Wednesday, and they might not Thursday either. The players received tests for the virus, and it is believed that they will wait for results before continuing with practice. Their last set of test results came on August 10, with just 2 of 117 players and staff testing positive. Those who are against schools returning to in-person learning have been vehemently against a college football season. But quite frankly, recent developments show that these athletes may actually be safer with the season ongoing.

The COVID-19 virus remains a relative unknown, and obviously, player safety should be prioritized. However, can it be confidently said that cancelling the football season would make these players safer? I’m not so sure that the case can be made. Throughout the summer, many college football programs practiced, following strict health protocols and keeping case numbers extremely low and even nonexistent at times. These low numbers have been been a major point in the push from many college football players and coaches to keep their 2020 season alive. When seasons were cancelled, many coaches spoke out, discussing the guidelines they had successfully followed in order to earn the chance to play.

Would the numbers increase once the season started? Again, the virus can be a little unpredictable given how new it is, but it seems that if the testing capacity is there, it would not be the case. Look at the case in the NHL and NBA bubbles right now – no cases are being reported despite heavy contact sports being played with no masks and certainly very little distancing. Yet, with increased testing, there have been no cases in recent weeks. While they’re in a bubble, the MLB is not. And yes, the MLB has had some struggles with cases, but every team that has been shut down has been linked to activity that took place off the field, such as a few Miami Marlins’ players visiting a strip club. These sports aren’t particularly conducive to distancing, players aren’t wearing mask, and many of the other general safety protocols regarding COVID are not really in play in these bubbles. Football may be a new test, but it doesn’t appear at this point, given the success of summer practices, as well as the restart of professional sports, that playing sports dramatically increases the chance of infection.

But what about the bevy of Athletic Directors saying they won’t play football without their students on campus? We can only hope they will see sense. While yes, the college’s job is to educate their students, it would be ignorant to ignore the financial ramifications of losing the football season. Notre Dame, for example, uses the money from their contract with NBC to supplment financial aid packages for students. Football is the biggest moneymaker for many universities around the country. It’s not about prioritizing athletes over regular students – it’s about doing their best to dull the financial crisis that will arise out of this pandemic.

As for the recent spikes in cases? To this point, there is no reason to suggest that will be made better by cancelling football. Initial reports from Notre Dame said that the majority of their cases originated with a couple of large off-campus parties. UNC reported a similar situation. The trend has been pretty clear – off campus students, who have housing secured for the year, and non-athletes, with little to lose beyond in-person classes, have been careless and put their schools in tough positions. Notre Dame’s numbers showed that the majority of their cases came from two sources – senior students and business students. Seniors, and particularly seniors in business, often have jobs locked up, or close to locked up, entering their final academic year. Their housing situation would remain largely unchanged, and their future prospects would hardly be threatened by another virtual semester. Meanwhile, a general sense of outrage has permeated the campus, particularly among on-campus underclassmen, who would feel the brunt of the impact of a virtual semester.

There’s a reason that the numbers among football teams have been extremely low – these athletes are playing for their team and their future. Take away that season and all you are doing is adding hundreds of players to a careless student body. That doesn’t seem to lower the risk. The trend is clear – people with something to lose have been more careful, follow the guidelines, and keep the case numbers low. If we’re looking at a pros and cons list, the cons of cancelling football seem to outweigh the pros by a heavy margin right now. Fans or not, colleges need this financially, and if anything, recent events have shown that sports are not really the issue at hand – they’re simply becoming another victim in a hunt to end the virus that feels more and more like a chicken running around with its head cut off. Focus on the issue at hand and give the players the chance to play that they deserve.

And if you’re not an athlete – maybe don’t throw a massive party that gets your school shut down.

Possible College Football Playoff Formats For 2020

The SEC announced its schedule yesterday, with their first week of games still slated to start on September 26. The ACC is primed to begin play on September 12. The Big 12 marks the third Power-5 conference still intending to play in what will be a wild and wacky college football season, should we make it all the way through. In total, 6 of 1`0 FBS conferences are currently planning to play, while the Big 10, Pac-12, Mountain West, and MAC have all cancelled towards fall football. Though they hope to play a spring season, it looks somewhat improbable that the situation will be clearly better just 5-6 months from now. While some vaccines have reached Phase 3 of testing, the timeline still seems crunched if that is indeed what these conferences await. It’s too early to tell whether their intended spring season will pan out; for now, the focus is on the six conferences still seeking to play. And while each conference at this point seems to be moving forward with a conference-only (or close to) schedule, there’s a major question to be answered. How will the College Football Playoff look? Will we see a temporary one-year expansion? Will the committee simply have to say which conference’s match-ups they value more? Will a Group-of-5 team get a chance. Here’s a few possibilities to consider.

3 Conference Champions and a Wild Card

At the moment, barring any further announcement from the CFP, this seems like the most likely option. The Big 12, ACC, and SEC champions will all get an automatic berth, while a wild card berth will go to one non-champion. While this leaves the door open for a Group of 5 participant, the likelihood would be that this berth goes to one of the Power-5 conferences’ runners-up. It also leaves open the possibility of one diviison – namely the SEC West – getting two playoff teams. The ACC, at least for this season, has eliminated the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions, leaving them with just a 15-team conference, meaning the top two teams will clash for the title. The same can be said for the Big 12, while the SEC has maintained their two 7-team divisions. As has been the case for a while now, the SEC West remains the considerably stronger division of the two, and they have had a non division champion make the CFP. Could we get LSU and Alabama into the Playoff?

In this format, the Group of 5 is a clear loser. Even with a reduced playing field, they have next to no chance at attaining a postseason berth in this set-up. Even an undefeated run from a team like Memphis or Appalachian State would carry very little weight with zero, or maybe one, power-5 opponents. A Power-5 team with an appearance in the conference championship will almost certainly get that fourth and final bid.

Winners from this format, in my mind, are Notre Dame and Georgia. These are two teams that are currently favored to be in their conference championship, but not win. Had every Power-5 conference been in action this fall, this would almost disqualify them from playoff consideration. However, in this format, an appearance and competitive showing in the conference championship game could gift them that final slot. I didn’t list a Big 12 team, because I believe it is unlikely that a 10-team conference will be given two playoff spots, while one from the 14-team SEC and 15-team ACC are chosen. Also, there isn’t a clear 2nd-best team in the Big 12 at this moment. Texas is generally considered Oklahoma’s biggest challenger, but that could just be preseason “Hook Em” Texas bluster. Oklahoma State and Iowa State figure to be competitive, while Baylor looks to recapture the magic that almost had them in the Playoff a year ago. Meanwhile, Notre Dame is a unanimous favorite to be in the ACC Championship with Clemson, while Georgia also figures to have a very good chance at representing the SEC East for a fourth straight season in the SEC title clash. This format gives the Irish and the Bulldogs a far brigher outlook when it comes to playoff possibilites.

4 Conference Champions

An interesting and improbable idea. This idea made a few headlines when South Florida coach Jeff Scott floated out this tweet:

Could the Committee consider the AAC a “power-4 conference” for one season, giving a Group-of-5 team an automatic bid into the Playoff. This seems naturally unfair to Power-5 teams playing much more grueling schedules. The AAC certainly has some talent at the top in Memphis, Cincinnati, and UCF, but it’s simply not the same as having LSU, Alabama, Auburn, and Florida (such is the schedule of Texas A&M). This elevates the AAC to a status that it doesn’t seem to quite merit at this point, and while it would be a fun underdog story, such darkhorse tales tend to not fare as well in football, particularly at the collegiate level. Think about this way: Would you rather see Alabama or Clemson taking Notre Dame or Georiga in the Playoff, or would you be more likely to tune in to see one of the afoementioned powerhouses take on Memphis. Seems unlikely, no matter how good they are.

The AAC is a major winner in this format, while Conference USA and the Sunbelt Conference are left completely out to dry. Mainly, I think of Appalachian State, who may be one of the best group-of-5 teams this year, being given no chance at a Playoff berth, while the AAC is somewhat arbitrarily granted Power-4 status and a Playoff berth. And while the last system was a postitive, Notre Dame and Georgia will also frown upon this format, as their playoff hopes will now square on them beating favored opponents and national championship favorites in their conference championships.

“The Best Four”

The Playoff committee couold simply stick with their current system, which, hypothetically, selects the best four teams every single season. While this often brings in Power-5 champions, there’s been a few notable examples of non-champions cracking the four team field. The reason I view this as unlikely, is that the committee will have to essentially publically state with their selections that they value the other conference. Yes, Oklahoma has historically and recently been a very good team that looks like world-beaters inside the Big 12, only to faint on the big stage. Will the Playoff Committee naturally assume the Big 12 is again an inferior conference, thus looking for extra SEC teams ti fill out the bracket. The SEC has been the only conference to get two playoff berths in one season, and so this system likely benefits them far more than other conference. With a conference-only schedule, it seems very likely that should a second berth come from one conference, it would be an SEC Team.

In my mind, the biggest winner of this scenario is LSU. I think the Tigers enter this season as likely the 2nd-best team in the SEC to Alabama. However, may formats would disqualify a 9-1 LSU team from the Playoff; however, if Ed Orgeron’s squad looks convincing in their nine wins, they could be deemed one of the ‘best four’ teams here without making their conference championship.

The biggest loser of this situation would possibly be Oklahoma. While the Committee is never supposed to take past years into consideration, it’s getting hard to ignore the eggs that the Sooners lay on the big stage. Will they be wholly convinced that an Oklahoma team, possibly with 1 loss, is one of the best four teams. I wouldn’t count on it right now.

An Expanded Format

An expanded format may be unlikely to think about, but it could be a way to smooth out the inevitable wrinkles that will come with trying to select a playoff field. An 8-team playoff that guaranteed a berth to both participants in each conference championship game, plus two wild card berths, with one reserved for the best Group of 5 champion, has some interesting merit. It really ensures that we get the best teams – with a Group of 5 underdog – and the possibility for a deserving team that didn’t quite make a conference title game. This format would be hardpressed to exclude a deserving team, but there are some drawbacks. For one, it pretty much devalues the conference championship game, which becomes a ceremonial trophy with only an effect on seeding. For a team like Notre Dame, who doesn’t really have a vested interest in winning conference titles as a program, if they were to reach the ACC Championship against Clemson, would they be willing to start their stars in a game that had little affect on their future chances?

Some other interesting formats include a 5-team playoff that includes 3 Power-5 champions, one Group-of-5 champion, and a wild card. This way, the conference champions get a bye, while likely the Group of 5 representative takes on the wild card in a playoff-opening quarterfinal clash. This puts value on winning your conference title, but opens up a path to the playoffs without doing so – a key factor for teams like Notre Dame, Georgia, and LSU (assuming Alabama as the favorite this season).

In all likelihood, the Playoff will have to have either a guaranteed spot for a Group of 5 school, or simply maintain their “best teams” vernacular. Any system that only allows Power-5 champions or conference championship participants would be admitting to the obvious – that no Group of 5 team will ever get a playoff berth under the current system. While it’s true, the Committee won’t want to make a format that directly excludes them either.

The Committee has its biggest challenge ahead in 2020 – from comparing conference strengths, to determing a fair format, and everything else, they face some very tough decisions this coming season. Can they minimize the drawbacks and give us a CFP worth watching?

Thoughts Behind the Covid-19 Redshirt Year

Amidst all the school closings, store closings, and now quarantined lifestyles, many collegiate athletes find themselves at a loss. After a tragic and sudden end to the season of spring athletes due to the current Coronavirus, the NCAA has offered the opportunity for students to use this prematurely concluded season as a redshirt year. Some appear to be elated while others discouraged.

From an optimistic standpoint, many athletes have the ability to make up for their lost season and complete the typical 4 season run of most collegiate athletes. As well, for many student-athletes who might not see playing time in their future, there is the opportunity to better their skills without missing out on a season or spending a year riding the bench for most games.

Though, there is as well the negative standpoint. The first of which being no athlete truly wanted to lose a season like this. The current team they are a part of will no longer be the same as seniors graduate, programs adapt, and positions change. No chance at a national title, a conference title, or any accolades for the season.

One must also look at the financial toll of a 5th year taken after the occurrence of Covid-19. Many athletes are already being supported by a scholarship, but very few find themselves holding a full ride. Due to this, student athletes who may not be able to afford a 5th year as is must decide between debt, or losing a year of the sport they love they most (which many will cease to continue once their collegiate career ends).

There is then the aspect of the seniors. Many were looking at All-American status, captain-ship, a starting position, and a chance to lead their team into one last season of victory and success. This has now been stripped away abruptly, and these seniors now have to decide whether to accept this defeat, or postpone their futures for the sport they love. These seniors have already found themselves accepted into grad school, beginning jobs in different cities, and pursuing what the future holds for them. Now they must decide whether to put their future on hold or give up years of blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice.

Brown senior Garett Delano is one of the many seniors forced to make a tough decision about their athletic careers. Image courtesy of the St. Cloud Rox

The sacrifices collegiate athletes make for their sport are nothing less than significant. Even from the moment they touched a ball, a stick, a racket, or put on a uniform. You give up aspects of your social life, moments with your family, and the ability to live what is deemed a normal life. Instead of frat parties, there are 7am lifts. Instead of internships, there are summer workout packets. Instead of tailgates, there are film sessions. Through all this sacrifice, spring student-athletes are now in a position where their efforts seem to be for nothing.

Ultimately, nobody planned for the global pandemic we are currently battling, but we are now in a state of facing it. Collegiate athletes must now decide how to handle this and how to move forward. While it is not a pleasant option, it is an option they have to face. As an athlete in the college realm, the choice that is faced here is nothing simple, and it will be interesting to see how many athletes ultimately decide to use this redshirt year versus having to sacrifice a year of hard work.