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Jerry Brewer: College football’s chaos is only the beginning of our second wave of sports despair

Gates leading into Memorial Stadium are padlocked, in Lincoln, Neb., Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. The Big Ten won't play football this fall because of concerns about COVID-19.  (Associated Press)
By Jerry Brewer Washington Post

Welcome to the second wave of 2020 sports despair. The splintering of college football represents another sober, seminal moment. The novel coronavirus, nimble in its devastation, just turned Aug. 11 into the new March 11.

You remember March 11. It was the day Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus, which shut down the NBA season and quickly forced all of our sports to go dark. It was the day that made a larger number of distracted Americans resist their frivolous instincts and take the pandemic seriously. As the privilege of full-throated fandom morphed into the mental strain of stay-at-home isolation, that period abolished the hoax myth.

This is a new wake-up call, only the message is more subtle and intricate: Life cannot pause forever, but COVID-19 cannot be wished away. Not all sports can will themselves back. In the case of college football, not all teams within a sport trying to will itself back can justify doing the same.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 abandoned hope of their fall seasons on Tuesday. The focus is on football because of its popularity and the massive revenue it normally provides, but the decision resulted in vast and multilayered devastation for dozens of teams within their larger departments, hundreds of athletes and the entire collegiate enterprise. Everything is in limbo now, despite the rest of the Power Five and other conferences still holding out hope.

Any lingering fallacies of a less painful transition to normalcy have been destroyed. For sports fans, it amounts to a spirit-crushing realization, and this is only the beginning of it. COVID-19 doesn’t care how much we want a full slate of sports. It doesn’t care how much we think we need them. It doesn’t care about the collateral damage; or the potential disruption of the traditional sports calendar for several years; or the money, the anguish and the necessity of human connection. It’s a disease. It plunders without bias. And the spirit of America is no match for it. The only weapons against it are intellect, strategy, respect for science and the resolve to be as patient and flexible as possible in adjusting to a mysterious enemy.

As it sorts through chaos with opinions that vary dramatically, college football stands as a noteworthy symbol of the entire nation. This is America, in shoulder pads and helmets, divided and regionalized and without clear leadership. Instead of uniformity, every league is doctored up with its own health expert, and experts don’t tend to agree. They flaunt their exceptional thinking, and that’s all the room conferences need to muddy the waters. It must be confusing for all athletes, who are inclined to want to play but don’t know whose information to trust.

Who’s right? The Big Ten and Pac-12 are out. The Mid-American Conference is out. Throughout all levels of the NCAA, leagues that don’t play football and those that aren’t as tied to the big money of football are pausing or proceeding with extraordinary caution. The link between coronavirus and the heart condition myocarditis is being introduced into our consciousness.

On the other end, Florida State is planning a Saturday scrimmage.

(I’ll pause so you can whisper your preferred swear word.)

This is America, in shoulder pads and helmets. And for as much as I side with the cautious approach, I’m humble enough to admit I don’t know for sure the proper approach.

There is a safer and a more reasoned one. But it’s not like the leagues tapping out are drinking wine and offering each other cigars in celebration. If this crisis can be compared to an estate on fire, they just chose to try to extinguish the main part of the house rather than the east wing.

Right and wrong will make itself clear in time. Instead of a running contemplation of only that, it’s more insightful to ask a different question: Who’s thinking deeply? Whose plan has the agility to reconcile our evolving understanding of the coronavirus and the desire to salvage everyday life without ruining or losing more lives?

The wicked symmetry of this time stays with me. From March 11 to Aug. 11 – from one 11th of heartbreak to the next – what have sports really done? What has the nation really done? Like the rest of life, some of the games are back, stitched up and bubbled off, trying to achieve closure for their wrecked seasons. Some, such as Major League Baseball and soon the NFL, are sprinting directly into a hurricane that others attempt to circumvent. Baseball is living week to week, and the NFL will experience similar difficulty, likely worse. Portions of college football want to do the same, for now, searching for the moral loopholes that would allow the sport to function like the megabillion-dollar business it pretends not to be.

Sports continue, broken, uncertain. In society, the curve we aspired to flatten still has troubling bumps. We are in the first wave of the pandemic or the second wave or an endless wave. But we trudge, ahead or around it. We all trudge.

We trudge without Big Ten and Pac-12 football. The SEC, ACC and Big 12 persist. Whatever happens, it won’t feel the same. The beauty of college football is in its diversity, how it manages to thrive despite its structural factions, the wildest of all major sports systems somehow making the disorder work. This is America, in shoulder pads and helmets.

“America needs college football,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, tweeted amid the week’s chaos.

His emotion-baiting, though laughable, worked for many. That’s how much the sport means to people. But America needs perspective more than pigskin. Whether the disjointed giant plays or collapses in full, the poignancy will cut deep.