As the pandemic rages on, and the University of Michigan tentatively makes plans for students to return to campus, we are all left to nervously wonder what may become of college football. Athletic Director Warde Manuel has already confirmed the impossibility of a normal or near-normal number of spectators. If the football team is to compete this season, I urge the administration to make the Big House available to student-only spectators.
College football is a cornerstone of the University experience. I share with many other students the background story of not caring about football prior to coming to the University and then quickly realizing the immense spirit and pride brought from standing in the Big House side by side with thousands of classmates and spectators. Football brings in a huge revenue for the University, but at the heart of it, game days serve the student body by creating a major sense of unity on campus. In the same school year that almost all of our normal student activities were stripped from us, what if we still got to go into the Big House — just us?
Imagine the 110,000 seat Big House, but at about five to ten percent capacity. That would be ten seats for every student spectator: two behind, two in front and two on each side. If every seat in the Big House is about 17 inches, there would be about six feet between each student from each side. It will be difficult to prevent students from conglomerating, but the groups I expect will form are ones made up of housemates and close friends — circles that have already intermingled by necessity. Furthermore, the Big House is open-air and just like all other campus buildings, masks would be required for entrance.
Ten percent of 110,000 while socially-distanced, would not be enough seats for all University students, but not all students want to attend football and not all students will be on campus. Any strife regarding a ticket lottery would certainly be resolved with the information that the alternative is no student spectators whatsoever.
One of the reasons why having spectators at a big sporting event is so dangerous for the spread of COVID-19 is because it brings people in from many areas. There is no safe or logical way in which alumni and fans could drive in from around the state and region without spreading the virus, even if tickets were distributed at a low capacity. The difficulty of screening people, preventing people from visiting hot spot areas and enforcing University social-distancing protocol makes this too dangerous.
However, students will only be traveling from down the street. Even though there is a generally skeptical view on college-aged people’s ability to follow social distancing, we are still better candidates for spectatorship than the general public. Our exposure to people outside of Ann Arbor will be minimal and any COVID-19 outbreaks will be carefully monitored. Knowing the general health of our community specifically (in terms of how many new cases per day) will give the administration the ability to judge whether a socially-distanced spectating can proceed responsibly. It’s impossible to know or monitor the general health of spectators coming from the general public.
For the most part, University students are quite young, which makes us at a lower risk for severe illness from COVID-19. In the worst-case scenario, in which a student-only football game was to result in an outbreak among students, it could hopefully remain contained within the campus and not place as much of a burden on ICUs. Our collective young age range does not make us immune in any way, but it certainly makes the argument that if people were allowed to spectate at all, it should not be the older people who you may more typically find in the non-student section.
The University is relying on students to comply with health guidelines upon return to campus. Unfortunately, there may not be much personal motivation to avoid the parties and gatherings that will surely ensue. We’ve been social distancing all summer and the temptation will be strong to get together in groups. Recognizing that if we can collectively keep COVID cases low in our community, a socially distanced football game could incentivize students to comply.
While sporting events return with no spectators, the large size, open-aired quality and slightly isolated community could make Michigan football a safe attempt at socially-distanced spectating. It would be most simple for the University to only televise the football games. However, this is an opportunity for the University to show that it puts its students’ experiences first. Although it would require great planning and caution, the pay off in spirit levels would be immense for the student body. Doing big chunks of our classes remotely and not having big gatherings is going to take a toll on us emotionally. It feels isolating to spend most of the day inside your home, a feeling most of us are familiar with at this point. At a time when we all have to be apart, looking out at our classmates in the Big House could be the only physical reminder we are part of a big community — the Wolverines.
Leah Adelman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.