Little did you know that pressing the star button on your cellphone transfers you not only to voicemail but also back 5,000 years to ancient Greece, where some stickler of a historian decided to place an asterisk next to the name of a champion javelin thrower who tested positive for excessive olive oil.
OK, so maybe that’s not exactly how the asterisk was born, but the powerful little punctuation mark does come from the Greek word asteriskos, meaning "little star." It is probably just coincidence that the little star fairly resembles the round and prickly-looking coronavirus. Or is it?
As COVID-19 continues to disorient sports as we know them, the asterisk is being talked about in everything from baseball statistics — does batting .400 in a 60-game season necessitate a "yes, but …" notation? — to whether NBA and Stanley Cup titles should be bubble-wrapped in skepticism.
To that end, what of college football? What happens if Ohio State goes undefeated during a nine-game regular season and is crowned national champion? Does it count? Better phrased: Would it be legitimate?
I say yes, with an asterisk, but I am not ESPN or Fox or among the handful of other national influencers who weigh in on how seasons are viewed.
The question becomes: What does that little star imply? If it simply means weird or different, mark down 2020 as having 10 asterisks, because we’re already there.
If, instead, it says, "Whoa, hold on a second, something smells funny," then legitimacy enters the equation, at least among the broader public. Not as much for home-based fans.
If the Buckeyes finish No. 1 — or the Blue Jackets hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup or the Cincinnati Reds win the World Series — their fans will neither apologize nor surrender the trophy.
As author John Bacon put it, "Whoever hoists the banner will hoist it high."
Bingo. Asterisks mostly only matter to fans who wear different team colors than the champions.
Bacon, whose books focus mostly on the University of Michigan, offered insight into the "asterisk thing," as did an assortment of coaches, broadcasters, media members and former players contacted for thoughts on how the upcoming college football season, if there is one, should be viewed.
Bacon: "One thing for sure is you have to play at least eight games. That’s the threshold. If you play seven, you’re still Big Ten champs, we’ll give you that, especially if there is a crossover title game. But go back to 1918, the first season Michigan and Ohio State were in the Big Ten together: It was the season of the Spanish flu and Michigan played one game in early October, then didn’t play for four or five weeks, then played four more games and went 2-0 in the Big Ten and 5-0 overall. Pal, I’m here to tell you Michigan raised a banner as Big Ten and national champs, but there’s an asterisk on that one."
James Laurinaitis (former Ohio State linebacker currently working for the Big Ten Network and WBNS-FM radio in Columbus): "I think an asterisk would only be necessary if one of the Power Five conferences doesn’t play. That’s a whole league of big boys that didn’t have a season. However, not sure we will look at the champ any less. I don’t look at strike-shortened seasons as needing an asterisk in pro sports."
Beau Bishop (Laurinaitis’ co-host on 97.1 The Fan): "The season will absolutely have an asterisk no matter what, but that’s not a bad thing. We are so hungry for football, and considering the real possibility that (a season) won’t happen, anything we get will be welcome. If we get five games, I’m thrilled and incredibly appreciative of the sacrifice done to do so."
Gary Danielson (CBS college football analyst): "Is an asterisk defined as something unusual or as reason to signify an accomplishment may be tainted? I suppose the 2020 season may have an asterisk, but it’s basically meaningless. It doesn’t equate to an asterisk placed on a player or team that cheated the system or gained an unfair advantage. I’d say it’s legit if it’s fair to everyone."
There’s the rub. What constitutes fairness in a season in which some conferences may play fewer or more games? In a season when a starting quarterback could contract COVID-19 before the big game — is that the same unfortunate fate as an injury? — or some schools lose 10 players to the virus because they test more often than a school that lives by a "don’t ask, don’t tell" safety policy?
Gerry DiNardo (Big Ten Network studio analyst and former coach): "It’s about the number of games you play, not bowls, because not everyone plays in one every year. I would not put an asterisk on player absences, which happen every year. Same with coaches, who have always been fired or resigned during the season."
Dennis Dodd (national college football writer for CBSSports.com): "The only way there isn’t an asterisk is if 130 teams play 12 games."
I also spoke to a current head coach at a Power Five program who requested anonymity. He shared frustration about being kept in the dark by the college football powers-that-be, but remains optimistic.
Coach: "I think we’re going to have football, but we’ve got to get 10 games (to legitimize the season). I think you also need the playoff and major bowl games. But I think this season gets an asterisk regardless. I’m wearing a mask while I’m talking to you. This has never happened before. There’s no playbook."
Take heart, coach, an asterisk season is Greek to me — and everyone else, too.