Rob Oller | Rejiggered sports seasons fail to make impact on some fans

Rob Oller
DISPATCH MUG headshot Rob Oller

Seriously, during the pandemic I am struggling to take sports seriously. And I am not alone.

I called former Dispatch columnist Bob Hunter to measure his interest in watching sports. After tuning into the first couple of major league baseball games, he tuned out, moving on to more interesting activities. Like watering the grass.

Hunter is a baseball guy, having covered the Reds for years and having served as secretary of the Cincinnati chapter of the Baseball Writers of America. He loves the game, but only when it’s a game — not exhibitions masquerading as legitimacy.

The Atlanta Braves scored 29 runs against Miami on Wednesday, the most in the majors since 1900. If that happens any other season you go, “Wow, that must have been fun to watch.” But with no fans in the stands, a 29-run outburst resembles a video game. Action without emotion.

Down the line it goes. The Kentucky Derby in September felt wrong. The NBA feels like a summer league. Piped in sound — already happening in baseball and soon to follow in the NFL — only adds to the vibe that games feel invalid.

Am I being “that guy” who can’t find positives in a pandemic? I don’t think so. A golfer friend from Dayton asked me last week, “Did they play the Memorial Tournament this year?”

They did. It followed the Workday Charity Open, which included one of the best finishes ever seen at Muirfield Village Golf Club when Collin Morikawa made a 24-foot putt on the first playoff hole moments after Justin Thomas buried a 61-footer. Fewer than 50 people saw it happen in person, as the tournament was played without fans.

I doubt Morikawa still makes his putt if the 18th green is brought to a boil by fans energized by Thomas’ bomb. The finish was fantastic, especially viewed on TV, but like other sports, golf comes off — what? — not fake but hard to take seriously.

Add college football to that artificial stew. The College Football Playoff committee can crown a national champion, but it becomes nothing but bluster when only three of the five Power Five conferences participate in a fall season — and when the three are seeing some of the best players sit out to save themselves for the NFL draft, while others get quarantined because of COVID-19.

For college football to gain legitimacy, the Big Ten and Pac-12 need to reinstitute fall sports sooner rather than later. Timing is crucial, because keeping football suspended into November or December cuts those two conferences out of the CFP equation and turns the 2020 fall season into a wink-wink production, no matter what Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban and Notre Dame say. And a winter/spring season with just the Big Ten and Pac-12 would be a bigger joke.

Without the Big Ten and Pac 12 climbing aboard, by mid-October at the latest, college football becomes an exercise in football futility, which may be what some of the Big Ten presidents want — more emphasis on academics and less on athletics.

Of course, the 11 presidents who voted to postpone football are not alone in setting a low bar for the season. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when the threat of cancellation and not postponement was the big worry, the rallying cry among athletic administrators and coaches was, “These athletes just want to play.”

In late May, nearly three months before the fall season was postponed, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith emphasized that the priority should be providing OSU players an opportunity to suit up.

“Our kids want to play. I think (eight games) would be important to them,” Smith said.

At the time, any talk of competing for championships was pushed to the back burner.

“There are a few young men where this is their last opportunity,” Smith continued. “First and foremost with their health and safety in mind, whatever we can do to give them that chance, I want to bend over backwards to give them that chance.”

Did you catch that? The inconvenient truth for many is that the ultimate goal was and remains simply getting players back on the field, not competing for titles, which will be tainted for all except the schools that win them.

Maybe that’s my problem. Maybe yours, too. We can’t take sports seriously, because our expectations remain overly inflated. Instead of taking anything we can get, we want a 12-game fall college football season, a packed NBA arena and a swarm of fans fighting for a foul ball.

We want normalcy when nothing these days is normal.