Only friends and family were allowed into Ray Fisher Stadium on Sunday afternoon, but in the adjacent parking lot, a few fans stood by a wrought iron fence, taking it all in.
Last season, the Michigan baseball program stood in the middle of the most visible moment in its history. Coming off a trip to the College World Series, the Wolverines were ranked No. 1 in the country in mid-February.
Then, on the eve of the most anticipated home opener in program history, it all went up in smoke when college sports were shelved by COVID-19. A year later, it’s worth thinking back to that moment and appreciating how, against the odds, the past eight months of college sports have been a roaring success.
Back in August, when the Big Ten canceled fall sports — including football, temporarily — it was uncertain whether Michigan sports would return at all this school year.
“As time progressed … it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall,” the Big Ten said in a statement on Aug. 11.
Eventually, the conference reversed its decision to cancel football season. In late November, basketball season began, just a few weeks after it typically does. By January, non-revenue sports resumed in a condensed spring schedule.
It’s difficult to remember now, with fans filling sporting venues around the country, but it very nearly wasn’t this way. Even with access to rapid testing readily available since the fall, the Ivy League never returned to competition.
On Aug. 10, Stefan Szymanski, an economist and sports management professor at Michigan, told The Daily, “The situation we’re in now is very much a consequence of failing to control the spread of the virus over the summer. Had we properly flattened the curve such as countries like Germany and France and Italy have succeeded in doing over the summer, it would probably be safe to open up sports.”
In truth, the curve never flattened. By January, COVID-19 cases in the U.S. were five times higher than they were in August. And yet, college sports forged on. If you had told me all of this in August, I would have ridiculed the Big Ten’s recklessness. However, I would have been — and was — proven wrong when I criticized them.
Since Michigan athletes returned to campus, 334 have tested positive for COVID-19 — roughly one-third of all University athletes. And though just under 10% of Americans have tested positive for COVID-19, scientific models have suggested the true number of COVID-19 cases could be nearly three times that high.
In other words, Michigan athletes haven’t been significantly more likely to contract COVID-19 than the general population. In the 10 months since athletes returned to campus, the Athletic Department hasn’t been tied to any superspreader events. Outdoor sports — 17 of Michigan’s 27 varsity sports — have been proven to be extremely low-transmission events.
None of this negates the brutal realities of the pandemic. In Washtenaw County, 264 people have died of COVID-19. In Michigan, that number is 17,552. Nationwide, it’s well over 500,000.
But it’s increasingly evident that college sports weren’t the catastrophic initiator of rampant viral spread that many predicted they would be in August. Instead, they’ve given us an escape from the hellscape of the past year.
At Michigan, the men’s basketball program secured its first No. 1 seed since 1993. On the women’s side, coach Kim Barnes Arico orchestrated the best season in the history of the basketball program. The hockey team had its dreams stripped by COVID-19, but it, too, had an excellent season before that fateful day in Fargo, N.D.
But beyond wins and losses, the return of college sports has given hundreds of athletes a chance to live out the dreams that were taken from them a year ago. Take this weekend, for example.
At Ray Fisher Stadium, those fans down the right field line watched the baseball team beat Ohio State, 16-7. The win strengthened the Wolverines’ grip on a projected 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they will aim to win their first title in 59 years.
In Columbus, the softball team beat the Buckeyes, 11-0. They’ve now won 10 of 11 and sit second in the Big Ten. The field hockey team, too, is on a win streak, including a 2-0 win over No. 11 Maryland on Sunday. Both programs are contenders to make deep postseason runs.
Elsewhere, the water polo team finished their regular season with a pair of wins in Lewiston, Pa., bringing their own win streak to 12. Back on campus, the men’s tennis team swept Michigan State, 7-0 and the women’s team snuck out a 4-3 win over Northwestern to likely secure a Big Ten title.
On the day, Michigan teams went 7-0. In the process, each drew one step closer to their post-season aspirations, doing what many thought they would never have the chance to do a mere eight months ago.
In a year of misery, let’s appreciate that.