When the Big Ten reinstated its football season on Sept. 16 in the face of the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that it would look different.
The lack of fans and the shortened schedule are among the factors that will ensure that this season will be — for lack of a better word — unique.
And while safety is the most important factor in this decision, the Big Ten can’t possibly ensure complete safety for all 14 of its member schools. That responsibility will fall to those universities and their administrations.
The University of Michigan’s football safety plans will fall into the hands of an administration led by beleaguered President Mark Schlissel, who recently had a vote of no confidence passed against him.
So, where does that leave us? A quick look at the University’s COVID dashboard tells us that just last week — from Sept. 20 through Sept. 27 — there were 200 new cases of COVID-19 reported — including outside tests. That’s a 182% increase from the week prior.
What does that have to do with football? Even though the players are still students and come in contact with other students, actual campus outbreaks have had no impact on other schools playing football. The University of North Carolina sent students home but still fielded a football team in September.
The simple answer is that schools can mitigate the impact of the pandemic on players and team personnel through regular testing and strict protocols. But when you look at everything that comes along with football Saturdays in Ann Arbor — crowded fraternity parties and packed tailgates that are likely to occur even with games closed to fans — that’s when the pandemic risks associated with having a football season become clear.
“I think football in itself is not a problem,” Hannah Maeir, a post-doc in the University of Michigan School of Public Health focusing on infectious disease research, said. “But I do think that the University of Michigan cannot handle crowds. So I think that the crowds and parties are going to be the problem.”
That’s what’s worrisome about the upcoming football season: The parties that may be raging down Hill street come Oct. 24, just like it’s a normal gameday.
And the University simply hasn’t proven it can handle a situation like this well. Look at the failed Michigan ambassador program for an example.
This pretty much leaves it to students to hold each other accountable and prevent the football season from making the pandemic worse in Ann Arbor. And even if for some reason you don’t care about COVID-19 cases rising in Ann Arbor and you only care about football — weird choice, but OK — it’s in your best interest to be responsible by wearing a mask, social distancing and not going to tailgates. If you operate like it’s game day as usual, you’re buying yourself a one-way ticket back to no game days at all.
That’s just how it is. The pandemic isn’t going to go away if we just ignore it. In fact, if we do that, it’ll only get worse. And even though the University’s administration is still dysfunctional, we might be able to have a safe football season in Ann Arbor this fall.
It’ll just be up to us.
Raines can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spencer__raines.