Football as religion is an appropriate metaphor for describing the fracturing of the college game in the age of COVID-19.
As religion in the United States has no central authority Baptists answer to one set of conventions and Catholics to another neither does college football follow any single canon. Notre Dame sees Touchdown Jesus signaling "All good" to play a fall football season as part of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Michigan’s Big House of worship, meanwhile, will sit empty this autumn after Big Ten presidents voted on Tuesday to cancel fall sports.
The Big 12 and Southeastern Conference, both members of the conservative Bible Belt, join the ACC in placing their faith in football over fear of COVID-19 transmission, while those liberal Left Coasters from the Pac-12 are shutting things down.
Morally, which conference is right? Is anyone wrong? It depends who you ask, which is the problem. No central clearinghouse exists to unify leadership. Big Ten presidents rely on their medical experts, who apparently think the risks associated with the coronavirus are too high to reward athletes with a fall season. Other conferences lean on the advice of their own medical people, who have concluded that it actually might be safer to play football than not.
Both sides can back up their data. Both sides believe they are right. Neither wants to be told how to think. "You follow your personal belief system and I’ll follow mine." Unity? No thanks.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said he trusts his conference’s medical advisory board and tweeted that the best advice he has received is "Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new and you’ll gain better information each day."
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren sounded a different tune: "I promise that all the decisions that we will make during my tenure here at the Big Ten will always put the mental and physical health and safety and wellness of our student-athletes at the center."
Whether you follow that with "Amen" or "Ahem" depends on your doctrine. We struggle in our politicized America to agree on the best set of principles and procedures to follow. Essentially the only time we want one size fits all is when our size gets chosen. One big happy family of believers we are not.
Well, you say, there is the NCAA to sort things out. Not really. Other than rules enforcement, the NCAA as an organization is a bystander in this scrap, having little jurisdiction over football. (Basketball is a different matter. The NCAA runs and makes its money off the NCAA Tournament; football bowls, including the College Football Playoff, operate independently from the NCAA.)
What we are left with is the kind of Wild West chaos we’re seeing this week, where every conference is doing its own thing based on … money? Fear? Compassion? Yes, yes and yes.
Where there is chaos there also is confusion. The Big Ten released its fall football schedule on Aug. 5, which would seem to indicate a lean toward holding a 2020 season. Then on Sunday the 14 university presidents including Ohio State’s Kristina Johnson, who had not officially begun her job met to decide whether the season would happen.
When word leaked on Monday that the presidents likely would shut down fall sports, Big Ten players and coaches took to Twitter to campaign for a season to happen. Most jarring were comments from Nebraska coach Scott Frost and Ohio State coach Ryan Day strongly suggesting that all avenues should be exhausted before canceling the season, including going "rogue" if need be by playing a nonconference schedule. (Both schools quickly backed off that idea.)
It is rare in the Big Ten when individual criticism cracks the foundation of "being of one accord." But that’s what happens in a leadership void.
Also, is it just me or are we witnessing the kind of hypocrisy that would make Touchdown Jesus throw a penalty flag? Namely, that college presidents are about to allow thousands of students back on campus, where they will live together in tiny dorm rooms and attend some classes indoors, but the solution to that health challenge is to shut down fall sports? I don’t quite follow the logic.
In the end, maybe all conferences will opt to cancel fall sports. Or maybe the Big 12, ACC and SEC stick to their guns and forge ahead, creating a strange situation where a national champion is crowned based on regional competition.
Either way, college football feels splintered. More than religion, it’s going to take love, sacrifice, humility, trust and wisdom to make it whole again.