With Less College Football, Can America Still Be, You Know, America?

Without your pulling it the tide comes in
Without your twirling it the Earth can spin
Without your pushing them, the clouds roll by
If they can do without you, ducky, so can I

- “Without You,” from My Fair Lady

Since way back in March, I’ve thought that the most dangerous task in this pandemic would be telling a hard-core fan that he or she would have no college football this fall.

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Can you spot the subtle marketing element here?

I’m guessing that’s part of the reason why, even though most colleges and universities have postponed all sports and downshifted a whole lot of everything else this fall, three sports conferences in the most football-crazed part of the country — the Southeastern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 12 — are plowing forward.

You just have the feeling that telling the players, fans and TV networks they were punting the fall season would be, let’s see, how can we phrase this delicately, a suicide mission.

The Big 10 and the Pac-12, conversely, have cancelled the fall season even though they hated to. So have hundreds of smaller schools. After listening to medical experts, they concluded it’s too chancy to play. The Big 12, SEC and ACC, presumably with access to the same information, decided it’s not.

Call it a partial win for the let’s-play faction, which includes both President Trump and a group of prominent college players who formed a de facto lobbying group, #WeWantToPlay.

That a pop-up group like this would emerge in the social media age is about as surprising as finding cheese on pizza. They’re football players. Of course they want to play.

But there’s a peculiar wild card here: The pandemic has in a critical sense leveled the playing field between college football and the rest of America.

None of us knows what’s next, or when “next” will show up.

Therefore, bad as we feel for dispossessed college football players, do we feel worse for them than for the 20 million people who have been thrown out of work? #WeWantToWork, frankly, would seem more compelling and urgent.

Now sure, in a normal autumn, we would have both jobs and football. This won’t be a normal autumn, in case you hadn’t noticed, and when we contemplate America putting itself back together, having less college football until spring or fall of 2021 isn’t even a top-25 concern.

In the larger picture, less football, so what?

I don’t say that as someone who considers sports unimportant. I was 2 years old when Bobby Thomson hit the home run that knocked the Brooklyn Dodgers out of the 1951 World Series, and I get a stabbing pain just writing this sentence.

But I’d also argue that the impact on millions of students who have had a grenade dropped into their academic and social lives seems more significant than which Southern party school wins the national football championship.

Yes, there’s pleasure in watching talented athletes engage in high-level sporting competition on a beautiful October afternoon.

But our national love for football isn’t all pinpoint passes on 60-yard fly patterns.

For some folks, football has morphed from a relatively harmless secular religion — complete with sacred rituals from tailgate picnics to office betting pools — into a vessel for our more disturbing primal instincts.

A cursory glance at social media right now suggests that a good number of fans have elected to demonize and hate any school official who has listened to the evidence and come down on the side of caution.

That’s troubling. So is the seduction of academic institutions by college football’s evolution into a multibillion-dollar industry.

During our present pause, perhaps we could muse for a moment about how healthy it is for an extracurricular activity to have become a cornerstone of an academic institution’s revenue and mission.

And maybe while we’re at it, we might also muse on why those who benefit the least from this industry are those on whose shoulders the whole structure rests: the players.

At some point, some court or arbiter is going to have to admit the obvious: Student-athletes at major schools are a work force.

Our present discussion is narrower.

Because almost every college, university and school in America is scaling back almost every aspect of campus and academic life, the majority have reluctantly declared they must also cut back on an intense contact sport.

And the words aren’t out of their mouths before someone wants to grind their faces into the dirt.

In a hard year, it makes one more thing harder than it needs to be.

They can still rule with land without you
Windsor Castle will stand without you
And without much ado we can all muddle through without you

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