Project Fortress: Freedom, Football, and Fear
College football just crossed the goal line. A handful of programs are undefeated; some finished winless; most are somewhere in between. But all of them are winners this year—because, together, they overcame COVID19 fear. In doing so, the administrators, coaches and players who made the 2020 college football season possible have reminded the rest of America that life and living must go on—even in the middle of a pandemic.
A back-of-the-envelope count reveals that college football went 523 and 54 during the regular season— 523 games played and 54 games cancelled. That’s the measure of success in 2020, given the hurricane-force winds college football withstood from the media and the fearmongers.
Before and during the season, large segments of the media preached that playing college football couldn’t be done—or more revealing—shouldn’t even be attempted.
Some in the media were resigned to the fact that it just couldn’t happen: “The people in charge of whether college football plays a game in September don’t have the stomach for the worst-case scenario or for plowing through the queasiness that’ll come with unavoidable outbreaks of COVID19.” In fact, they did exactly that—see the above tallies—as commissioners and coaches nimbly canceled, postponed and rescheduled games on the fly.
Others in the media used wordsmithing sleight-of-hand to conflate deaths and infections—and thus preemptively condemn trying to play college football: “With the U.S. death toll continuing to rise and infections exceeding 5.7 million,” the New York Times intoned, “players and other students contracting the virus as a result of an ill-advised college football season is not a likelihood—it’s a certainty.” Of course, players and other students were “contracting the virus” before they returned to campus. Indeed, tens of millions of Americans who don’t play college football have contracted the virus. What the Times ignores is that “contracting” a new virus is the pathway to community immunity. Modern societies, as AIER’s readers have learned, overcome new viruses not by quarantining college students and other healthy people, but through natural spread of a virus and/or through vaccination (the purposeful introduction of a virus into our bodies)—all while quarantining the unhealthy and the at-risk.
One writer, with all the subtlety of a fullback, warned that college presidents were gambling “that their decision to play football this fall won’t kill people,” declared that playing football was “the most reckless action ever perpetuated on college campuses in the name of athletics,” and scoffed at the “quest to play football in the middle of a pandemic.”
That last comment is priceless and typical of this era, with its myopic sense that history begins when one is born. The writer is apparently unaware that colleges played football during the pandemics of 1968 and 1957 and even during the Great War’s Great Pandemic of 1918.
A professor in computer science—doubtless, relying on the same sort of computer-modeling programs that claimed COVID19 would kill 1.1 million Americans even under “the most effective mitigation strategy”—projected that up to seven college football players would die from COVID19. “I guarantee someone [who plays college football] is going to die,” he declared. “I just want to give you the facts.” And CBS Sports uncritically, unthinkingly reported those “facts.” In fact, there was nothing factual about the computer-science professor’s “facts.” Projections, by definition, aren’t facts. They’re just dressed-up guesses. In June, his projections grabbed headlines and generated clicks. In late December, they are provably wrong. I don’t have access to every college player’s health status, but I’m unaware of any college football players who have died from COVID19. Something tells me that if such a tragedy had happened, we would be hearing about it—constantly.
We’re still waiting for some statement of accountability from that computer scientist—though in August he did revise his death-projection “guarantee” down to two—and we’re still waiting for a mea culpa from the CBS Sports columnist who so eagerly circulated those un-factual “facts.”
A Sports Illustrated columnist yelped in early October that “Notre Dame’s leadership is failing its students” and wondered “whether [Notre Dame] can piece a promising season back together” after postponing a game in late September. Notre Dame went on to win its next eight games, finish the regular season undefeated, outlast the second-ranked Clemson Tigers in a double-overtime game for the ages (complete with a field-rush by the student body that, we were assured, would lead to COVID carnage), and paint a masterpiece season. In short, the Fighting Irish pieced things together quite well.
When the University of Wisconsin temporarily paused football activities the first week of November due to contact tracing and positive tests on the team, one national radio personality reported that “sources” told him the school’s football stadium would be used as “a possible field hospital.” Well, in early December, Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium hosted the Wisconsin-Indiana game. It’s now late December, and Camp Randall Stadium is still a football stadium.
A Little Truth
On and on the media herd bleated, howling that college football’s decisionmakers were reckless or mercenary or bent on death—or all of the above. By August, the herd seemed to have more than just inborn bias on its side.
After battling COVID19, an Indiana University offensive lineman developed “possible heart issues,” his mother reported in early August. The Big 10 Conference, of which Indiana is a member, soon thereafter canceled its 2020 fall sports season, citing concerns that players contracting COVID19 could develop myocarditis.
Myocarditis, a columnist explained, is “a rare heart condition that can lead to cardiac arrest and premature death.” A Penn State team physician reported that “cardiac MRI scans revealed that approximately a third of Big 10 athletes who tested positive for COVID19 appeared to have myocarditis,” as McClatchy newspapers reported.
Given those high percentages and grim side effects, it was no surprise that Big 10 and Pac 12 presidents voted to cancel football. What was surprising and puzzling was that their counterparts in the other so-called Power Five conferences—the Southeastern Conference (SEC), Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and Big 12 Conference—didn’t do the same.
The solution to that puzzle became apparent as people started asking questions and digging through the information. COVID19 can indeed lead to myocarditis, and myocarditis can indeed lead to death. That much is true. What too many expert scientists (and non-expert columnists) failed to tell us is that many viruses and infections can lead to myocarditis, including viruses that cause the common cold, influenza viruses, gastrointestinal viruses, HIV, mononucleosis, staph and strep. In other words, viral events leading to myocarditis are not terribly rare, and the myocarditis side effect is not at all unique to COVID19.
That led many of us to ask, “Why are all these protocols and precautions not in place for all those other myocarditis-triggering conditions? And if we don’t have these protocols and precautions for all those other myocarditis-triggering conditions, why do we have them for COVID19?”
The myocarditis-COVID19 warnings turned out to be a classic case of people telling the truth but failing to tell the whole truth. Thankfully, some experts—including physicians at Mayo Clinic and other respected medical institutions—called out their colleagues and rejected the COVID19-myocarditis claims as “nonsensical” and based on “bad statistics.” We soon learned that COVID19 was not correlated with myocarditis in anywhere close to 33 percent of Big 10 athletes. The Penn State physician was forced to—ahem—clarify the COVID19-myocarditis conclusion. The Big 10 developed cardiac-screening safety protocols, reversed course and decided to play football. Other conferences followed. By the first week of October, that Indiana offensive lineman had returned to practice, though that piece of good news somehow never made it into national media outlets. And by the first week of November, at least 116 top-division colleges were playing football.
The Reasonable Rebellion
This was and is a victory for reason over fear—and for individual liberty over coercion.
The SEC, Big 12 and ACC deserve credit for leading, for giving us a welcome distraction from the hash so many decisionmakers have made of our nation, states, cities and workplaces since March, and for illustrating a profound truth: Free men and women armed with facts are far better than experts and bureaucrats at determining what works and what doesn’t, when and where to make adjustments, and how to balance risks and benefits.
Indeed, those with eyes to see have found better examples of leadership on college campuses than in the halls of government.
First, there were university presidents. Way back in April, a handful of university leaders articulated how and why colleges must reopen—an essential precondition for colleges playing football. Purdue University’s Mitch Daniels, for example, explained that our nation’s unprecedented mass-quarantine of the healthy “has come at extraordinary costs, as much human as economic, and at some point…will begin to vastly outweigh the benefits of its continuance.” Fr. John Jenkins of Notre Dame pushed back against our society’s embrace of scientism and our worship of experts, reminding us there are “questions that a scientist, speaking strictly as a scientist, cannot answer for us. For questions about moral value—how we ought to decide and act—science can inform our deliberations, but it cannot provide the answer.” And as public-health experts used fear to shut down our free society, West Virginia University’s Gordon Gee said something simple yet profound: “We need to learn to dance with the pandemic rather than being fearful of it.”
Then there were the conference commissioners and athletic directors, who have provided thoughtful leadership throughout the pandemic. They didn’t ignore the science. Rather, they listened to experts, educated themselves, looked at the data and made informed decisions. They didn’t succumb to the defeatism that consumes our echo-chamber press. Rather, in a quintessentially American way, they approached the challenge from a perspective of “How can we make this work?” rather than “How can we even try to do this?” And unlike so many elected officials, they didn’t ignore history. Rather, they remembered—many of them firsthand—that American commerce and culture didn’t shut down during past pandemics.
As SEC commissioner Greg Sankey noted in May, “If football is not an active part of our life in the fall, what’s happening around us becomes a real big question societally, economically and culturally.”
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick pointed out that college football contributes to the “education of our student-athletes, the culture of our campus and a sense of community.” This truth transcends the gridiron. No matter the motives, the lockdown way of life is a hideous destroyer of life and living, culture and community.
Finally, we saw leadership on display in the players themselves. When it appeared in August that university presidents would cancel the season without even trying to play, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence made a reasoned case that players would be safer within the structure of team activities—and in the process sparked a grassroots rebellion, as hundreds of student-athletes signed on to the “Let Us Play” campaign. Big 10 players launched a similar effort. Some Big 10 players even sued their own conference—implicitly declaring that as young adults, they were ready to accept the risks and responsibilities that come with liberty.
Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that college football players, coaches and administrators were making the same argument Americans who believe in individual liberty and individual responsibility have made since March: If you don’t want to play football games or go to football games or send your child to school or dine at a restaurant or gather for worship, that’s fine. Don’t do those things. But don’t prevent the rest of us from moving forward.
Through it all, Americans were given a real-time lesson in civics. Our federal system of government makes it difficult to force everyone in every state, every county and every city to do the same thing. As Alexis de Tocqueville marveled in Democracy in America, “The intelligence and the power of the people are disseminated through all the parts of this vast country…instead of radiating from a common point, they cross each other in every direction.” Almost 200 years later, this truth was put on display week in and week out by college football programs and the places they call home.
Perhaps all those players, athletic directors, conference commissioners and administrators had read the work of Donald Henderson, who years ago warned against the destructive course most policymakers (though not all) forced Americans to walk this year.
Perhaps they heard a lecture by Oxford University epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta, who in an echo of Gee’s “dance with the virus” comment, explains that “The epidemic is an ecological relationship that we have to manage between ourselves and the virus”—and that we must find “a way of living with this virus.”
Perhaps they remembered that Americans played college football—and went to church and school and movies and restaurants—during past pandemics.
Or perhaps they simply looked at the information and recognized that COVID19, while lethal for people in certain age groups and people suffering from certain preexisting conditions, has an incredibly low likelihood of serious effects for college-aged people (Clemson’s Lawrence is one of many examples) and an overall case-fatality rate between 0.2 and 0.3 percent. In other words, COVID19 is not another 1918 Spanish Flu. It’s not even another 1957 Asian Flu (which had a case-fatality rate of 0.67 percent). As such, COVID19 warrants prudent precautions, but it doesn’t warrant shutting down religious, commercial and cultural activity.
None of this is to suggest that football is more important than life. It is not. But the 2020 college football season reminds us of truths too many Americans have forgotten in the long months since March: Sports and other “non-essential” activities make life richer and better; a person or a society can be alive and not really be living; sheltering in place until a governor or scientist gives an “all clear” is the very opposite of America’s promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; and living, like college football in many ways, is intertwined with contact, connection, community, culture and commerce.
Those gridiron reminders are something to cheer about.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. A version of this was published by the American Institute of Economic Research.