Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 29, 2020

The Virus Rules As Football Plows Ahead

Remember when it seemed like the baseball season was a mess? Those long-ago days back in July and August, when first the Marlins and then the Cardinals saw their clubhouses overrun by COVID infections, resulting in games being cancelled and schedules reshuffled? In retrospect, what at the time felt like chaos now looks rather orderly. That’s because as winter approaches and each day’s report of coronavirus numbers in the U.S. gets progressively worse, with no corner of the country going unscathed, football is proving what in truth fans have known all along, namely that sports are no refuge from reality.

The college season staggers toward its end, with university athletic directors and executives at major conferences determined to get to the huge financial payday of bowl games and the four-team playoff to determine a national champion. No matter that of the four teams whose current rankings would place them in that tournament, one played this weekend without its head coach and another had its scheduled game cancelled. Both Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Ryan Day received positive COVID diagnoses that removed them from the sidelines. In Saban’s case that didn’t really seem to matter, as this year’s Iron Bowl game against cross-state rival Auburn was no classic contest sure to be long remembered, but a forgettable Crimson Tide rout. How the Buckeyes would have fared without Day’s personal guidance will never be known, as Ohio State’s matchup against Illinois was called off less than 24 hours before kickoff, one of 19 games wiped off the college calendar over the long Thanksgiving weekend alone.

Even where games were played there were sights never before seen. At Faurot Field on the campus of the University of Missouri, the visiting Vanderbilt Commodores turned to Sarah Fuller to handle the team’s placekicking after everyone at the position on the team’s depth chart was forced to quarantine because of contact with an infected individual. Fuller, who said she found her usual job of tending goal for the school’s women’s soccer team during Vanderbilt’s recent victory in the SEC championship game more stressful, handled her one time on the field, the kickoff to start the second half, flawlessly. That was more than can be said for the rest of the roster on winless Vanderbilt, which lost to Missouri 41-0.

Fuller’s appearance was the first by a woman wearing the football uniform of a Power 5 conference team. The historic event was both a welcome sight and great for Fuller, even as it was met by a sadly predictable wave of misogynistic comments from some quarters. But no one should imagine for even a moment that it was a sign of a new commitment to gender equity in collegiate sports. Rather it was entirely about what Vanderbilt athletes were already participating in the school’s COVID-19 protocols. To that end it should be noted that the university doesn’t field a men’s soccer team.

But at least the Commodores could turn to someone who had experience kicking a ball. That placed the college team far ahead of one of its professional counterparts. Jeff Driscoll, one of four quarterbacks on the Denver Broncos roster, tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday. Within a day’s time it was determined that he had come in contact – without a mask – with all three of his signal-calling colleagues. That meant Blake Bortles, Drew Lock, and Brett Rypien were ruled ineligible for Sunday’s game against New Orleans. But with the NFL season heading into its final weeks and both the Broncos and Saints having already had their bye week, the contest went on as planned, even though one team had no quarterback on its roster. Since the league is playing its full 16-game schedule, this was akin to telling the Colorado Rockies (to keep the example in Denver) during a regular 162-game baseball season, that they must go ten games using only position players as pitchers. Would fans consider that to be fair or the results of those games legitimate? That is of course a silly question when the NFL’s only goal is to continue to reap the earnings from its television contracts as it plows ahead to the megadollar bonanza of the Super Bowl.

Amidst all this mindless pursuit of cash in the middle of a steadily worsening pandemic, there was one other NFL story that can only be described as quintessentially 2020.

Matt Patricia, the head coach of the Detroit Lions since 2018, was fired on Saturday, two days after the Lions lost at home on Thanksgiving Day, as they almost always do. Given Patricia’s record of 13-29-1 while at the helm, the news was not exactly surprising. But it came between twin celebrations in Washington and New York, as first the Football Team with its win over Dallas on Thursday, and then the Giants with a victory over the Bengals on Sunday, claimed first place in the NFC East. Fans in both cities were excited about two teams that now have identical records of 4-7, exactly the mark that was bad enough to get Patricia axed. But then Detroit is in the NFC North, a division where real football is played. Unfortunately for the former head coach, in the NFL as in real estate, location is everything.

It’s all more than enough to make one pine for those simple days of home runs and strikeouts, and not enough of anything else. Which in turn leads one to harken back to an even earlier, and profoundly different time, and to conclude with a heartfelt “happy birthday” to two immortals who can blow out candles together. For Sunday marks the annual turn of the calendar for the greatest closer in the history of the Great Game, Mariano Rivera, and for the baseball announcer against whom all others are judged and found wanting, Vin Scully. Happy birthday Mo. Happy birthday Mr. Scully. We miss you both, for your talent of course, but also for your grace. Oh man, these days we miss that a lot.

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