The Sun Bowl, played annually in El Paso, Texas, since 1935, is such a local institution that its organizers were determined to play the game even if the teams arrived the day before kick-off and attendance on New Years Eve limited to 8,600.
Then, when Thanksgiving arrived, the coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed their city and showed no signs of forbearance.
“When our convention center was turned into a hospital and portable morgues were brought in to bring bodies and the National Guard was called in, we said do we really want to have a soccer game in this situation?” said Bernie Olivas, the Sun Bowl executive director. “Is it really worth it?”
After a few brief discussions, the answer became obvious. On December 2nd, the organizers canceled the game.
As the pandemic college football season draws to a close – players and coaches keep dropping out, games regularly wiped out, and nerves fraying after months of isolation and uncertainty – Olivas’ question is one that could be asked more broadly: Is it worth it really?
Think where things are: Sixteen bowl games (out of 44) have been canceled, including two this week that were canceled days before their game. More than two dozen schools – including Penn State, Southern California, and Florida State – have chosen not to play, in some cases because players preferred to spend Christmas home with families they hadn’t seen since summer . (This left Mississippi State, at 3-7, in a bowl.)
The Rose Bowl – the marquee for the bowl season and this year hosting a playoff semifinal on Friday between Notre Dame (# 4) and Alabama (# 1) – was moved from her home in Pasadena, California to Arlington, Texas, after Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly threatened a boycott. Kelly’s protest was on health and safety grounds – that California state rules were so restrictive that his players’ families could not attend the game
That won’t be a problem now; About 16,000 fans are allowed to participate in the game, which is now taking place in Texas.
Infection rates are lower in Tarrant County, where the game is played, than in Los Angeles County, but there are fewer critical care beds available – they were 99 percent full on Monday – and two refrigerator trucks are stationed outside the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office .
Another sign of the new normal came this week when two of the ESPN broadcast analysts scheduled for the game – Kirk Herbstreit for television and Greg McElroy for radio – said they had contracted the virus. (That didn’t stop the Rose Bowl game organizers from hosting a media hospitality suite.)
The other semi-final on Friday leads Clemson (No. 2) against Ohio State (No. 3) in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans – or is it the Covid Bowl? Clemson said 37 players tested positive this season (including star quarterback Trevor Lawrence) and announced on Wednesday that his offensive coordinator Tony Elliott would not be attending the game due to Covid-19 protocols. The state of Ohio, which has not released information on testing, suspended training over the summer, canceled a game due to an outbreak, banned 23 players as well as coach Ryan Day from his last regular season game, and withheld 22 players from the Big Ten championship games.
Jan. 1, 2021, 11:20 a.m. ET
The fact that Ohio State is in the four-team tournament despite only six games – five fewer than the others – angered Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
“I know we can say yes they should be one of the best teams,” said Swinney. “Well, the game is not played on paper.”
The state of Ohio did a lot to be in the picture. First, it convinced the Big Ten to raise their minimum gaming requirements for the conference title game. Then they managed to cut the 21-day wait for infected players to 17, which could allow players like star recipient Chris Olave to return to the Clemson game.
That three-week period was touted by the Big Ten as an example of how they are protecting the health and well-being of their players when the conference reversed course in September and decided to play this fall.
But it’s one of many proclamations that have turned out to be set in the sand – dating back to April when the College Football Playoffs Executive Committee, led by 10 conference commissioners and Notre Dame Sporting Director Jack Swarbrick, Vice President Mike Pence specifically announced this was not like the pros: if the students weren’t on campus for class, they wouldn’t be in the fields to play sports.
It went on until the size of the crater was calculated in the sports department’s budget.
Soon after, commissioners like Larry Scott of the Pac-12 suggested that athletes, unpaid as they are, were much safer from the virus on campus than at home. Six months later, the data – more than 6,600 cases in 78 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, the New York Times reported earlier this month – would argue otherwise.
All of these cases have contributed to missed exercises, interrupted training sessions, and canceled games that players and coaches have readily acknowledged to have taken an emotional toll. And with more than 200 players across the country signing out before and during the season, the competitiveness and quality of the games also seem to suffer, which has already resulted in falling TV ratings.
The most watched game of last regular season, Louisiana State, Alabama, drew 6 million more viewers than the most watched game of the season: Clemson in Notre Dame.
That November 7th game, however, was the most indelible moment of the season that had nothing to do with the players. It came in the end when Notre Dame won a double overtime victory: More than 8,000 students stormed outnumbered security guards and stormed the field, leaving onlookers, announcers, and school and local health officials speechless during the party.
It also epitomized a season when college football lowered its shoulder pads from start to finish, trying to weather a pandemic.