College football’s coronavirus season could be painful to watch



None contend the season shouldn’t have happened, but …

“I spent a lot of time grimacing,” said John Swartzberg, a member of the Pac-12 medical advisory panel and an emeritus clinical professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the University of California at Berkeley.

“A lot of it made me cringe,” said George Rutherford, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

“I was watching a repeated train wreck,” said Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, which strives to improve public health.

“I absolutely agree” that messaging during televised games should have been better, said Leslie Beitsch, a member of the ACC advisory panel and chair of behavioral sciences and social medicine at Florida State, focusing on health policy and public health.

Swartzberg watched from Berkeley, where he long has followed Cal sports, as the Bears managed to eke out four games in the mire of cancellations and disruptions.

“We learned an awful lot about what we can do and what we can’t do,” he said.

The daily antigen testing that saved the (partial) seasons of the Big Ten and Pac-12, encouraging those conferences to reconsider after initially canceling, proved spotty as new scientific endeavors sometimes do, suffering from some false positives and more false negatives.

“I think, all in all, daily antigen testing to allow high-risk sports like football to continue — I give it a C-minus,” he said. He later added, “It’s a problematic test, and we were so hopeful that it was going to be our salvation.”

He also spotted a mental benefit.

“I think in terms of, ‘How well did it work?’ the entertainment value was there for the United States population,” he said. “The circus was still held. And I think people enjoyed that. I find it disappointing that coaches didn’t model good public-health behavior. I’m specifically referring to the lack of masking. . . . Think if people following sports saw people meticulously following public-health guidelines and saw university presidents not allowing fans, they would think more seriously about it, and lives would be saved.”

He kept thinking of Notre Dame students storming the field after beating then-No. 1 Clemson in November. “I was just appalled, just appalled,” he said, finding it “just so dispiriting.” He wished television broadcasts had offered more constructive critiques, particularly of coaches and fans.

Rutherford watched as a longtime fan of that entity across San Francisco Bay, Stanford. He fondly recollects Jim Plunkett and Randy Vataha confounding Ohio State and Woody Hayes in the 1971 Rose Bowl. He jokingly reels at the false-positive testing that dented Stanford’s roster for its game against Oregon. He feels sorry for Washington for missing out on the Pac-12 championship game, but in general he dislikes feeling sorry for Washington.

“Obviously this was an airplane being built during flight,” he said of the season, “but I think it’s worked out pretty well. I think it turned out about as well as one could expect. … I’m glad they tried it because it provided some entertainment from (his) working 20 hours a day. It’s part of the fabric of American society.”

But, like others, he said it will remain unknown how much having percentages of fans in the stands in some conferences contributed to the horrifying case numbers overall. “They’ll, of course, cause more disease,” he said of the gathering. “It’s inevitable that people coming in are going to be infectious.”

Castrucci watched from the Washington metro area as an ACC fan, which means he knows the ACC didn’t win any bowl games even as the season comes down to Alabama and Ohio State and hopefully not, he said, self-congratulation.

“This is the hardest part in public health — that if people don’t get sick, that’s somehow an invalidation of what was said,” he said. “We know that no college football player died, and no one wanted that, but that doesn’t mean — and this is what I keep hearing — that it was successful. ‘We had a season.’ That doesn’t make it a good idea.”

He added, “I’m not even saying they shouldn’t have played.” He said they should have played with a different message — from coaches, broadcasters, everyone. He was particularly disheartened by the message sent when Florida Coach Dan Mullen climbed into the stands among fans to celebrate a win over Georgia. “The college football narrative that went on for the last several months directly undermined the public-health messaging that this wasn’t serious,” he said. “We had a 12-hour narrative on Saturdays.”

He even thought of a slogan that went unused: “Stay home. Watch our games.”

So: “It is the most tone-deaf thing to congratulate everyone on a season ‘successfully completed.’ Address those 400,000 families (of the deceased).” And: “Even if someone had said: ‘We recognize the hundreds of thousands we have lost from this. We recognize that this is a very challenging time.’ ” Then he said, “Sports would have been an amplifier instead of a detractor.”

“I’m appreciative for the distraction,” he said, “(but) there was such a way that we could have done this to meet multiple goals.” Instead, he said after an autumn and early winter of spotty masking on TV, the “celebratory nature of it” carries “an ‘I-told-you-so’ flair.”

And he concluded: “Ultimately, what it was sad because it just reminds you of the prioritization that we have in our country and just how low public health is, even during a pandemic.”

Beitsch watched from Tallahassee, where Florida State’s season got going and then veered into complications and cancellations by the end. He called this “an interesting sort of period to reflect.”

He began by saying, “There have literally been no documented cases of transmission on the field of play, and I think that is a stunning kind of conclusion and is a testimony” that with thought-out, cautious policy, “you really can reduce the risk.” He said of the season, “I would call it relatively successful and, for me, successful beyond my expectations.” And he said of the mental part, “It did distract people, in a way.”

His television also revealed too much of the American fashion of wearing a mask below the nose, which isn’t effective, nor is “on the back of your head.” He said in general: “The numbers are horrific. There’s no other way to describe them.” It might have helped, he agreed, to have different messaging, but . . .

“We made those things; they became politicized and weaponized,” he said of the country in general. “I think it probably created a lot of reluctance on the part of sponsors, announcers, that I think (distracted) from a public-health perspective (that) would have been a knee-jerk, ‘That’s what you do.’ ”

From a public-health perspective, all agreed on something else, as stated by Swartzberg: “Keep an eye on basketball,” he said, “because that’s going to be interesting.”

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