Super Bowl shouldn’t have fans, and this all still feels weird

Fans watch the University of Nebraska’s football team.
Photo: Getty Images

Watching a football game during a pandemic is a bit like watching people smoke on the sidelines for three hours. No one on the field will die of lung cancer during the game, but, from a public health standpoint, it’s not good.


First off, the role modeling is mostly terrible. Some coach inevitably will have a mask around his chin during a wide shot. The messaging is awful, like when the NFL insists all protocols were followed when Ravens wide receiver Dez Bryant is warming up on the field Tuesday night, greeting fromer Cowboys teammates, only to get a positive test a half hour before the kickoff, and the league OF COURSE plays the game.


Or the Big Ten changing entire sets of rules so that Ohio State remains eligible for the conference championship game, despite the fact that the school couldn’t keep its players safe from the virus and was forced to cancel a game and thus failed to reach the minimum number of games (6) to qualify.. Coaches talk about how the kids want to play in a pandemic, even if the kids wanting to play didn’t factor into the cancellation of other seasons, or the wholesale chopping of entire sports from athletic departments. The fact is the colleges want that sweet college football money and are willing to risk “student-athlete” health to get it.


Then there is the inevitable happy-talk broadcaster who notes how well the NFL or the Big Ten is handling everything and doing SUCH A GOOD JOB. It’s the literal participation trophy of compliments, and one that belies what supplicants rights holders are to the leagues they showcase.


A new NPR/PBS Newshour Poll conducted with the Marist Center for Sports Communication (full disclosure, I and the Center’s Director) indicates that sports fans aren’t fooled by any of this pageantry.


A day after a record 3,000 Americans died of the coronavirus, results showed most Americans would like to see teams and leagues modify their activities in the current environment. As the NBA looks to begin a new season and colleges start their winter play, 56 percent of sports fans say people shouldn’t be participating in indoor team sports right now. The same number say they are concerned that local indoor-play could lead to community spread, and 58 percent say the government should be able to place restrictions on play.


And of course the same political divisions that have been seen in the public health debate are visible when it comes to sports. Republicans are more interested in playing sports like it’s 1999, but even they want some modifications. When 49 percent of sports fans say there shouldn’t be any fans at the Super Bowl this year, 27% of Republicans agreed. Only 16% said it should be fans as usual, and 34% said fans only with restrictions.


No fans at the Super Bowl. And nearly a third of sports fans say there shouldn’t be college football at all.


If you watch college football or the NFL, you are likely to see fans in the stands. Not as many, but there have been games where fans crowd the lower bowl and high-five after touchdowns. When that isn’t the case, TV producers have taken to avoiding showing the stands altogether, even when it means getting an oddly tight shot of players or game action. Then there is the decision to pipe in crowd noise from other seasons to mask the bizarreness of it all.


The Marist Poll breaks down the responses by gender, age, race and political affiliation. Not surprisingly, demographics that are more likely to be harmed by the virus are more likely to express concerns. Boomers and their elders (60 percent) and non-white people (63 percent) were more likely to worry about community spread, as were women (62 percent) and Democrats (73 percent).


Life isn’t normal, and neither are the games. Lower ratings across the board since the pandemic started to tell part of the story, and sports fans say they aren’t watching as much.


Sports have always been an indication of how healthy we are as a society. Planes could get teams and fans across the country to games. Restaurants could feed them, and hotels house them. People had money for tickets and ridiculously overpriced beer.


That’s all changed.


Lockdowns are returning to West Coast cities, NYC public schools went virtual this month as local rates rose. Yet in the Dakotas, a raging virus and overwhelmed hospitals will not lead to restrictions as politicians trumpet some misinterpretation of freedom.


Our nation is sick, and sports leagues do too little to acknowledge this reality. Quite the contrary, they feed us a false sense of normality. There is a disconnect there, and one that is experienced by fans, even as those planning seasons outside of a bubble put economic interests first.


Since the Marist data in which the great majority of sports fans reported that they spent less time watching sports in the pandemic, I’ve heard from people who said they just don’t have the same appetite for watching games as they once did, they can’t follow teams or seasons with the same relish.


Sports have always been a distraction, entertainment, a bit of the social fabric that connects people in a casual setting. We don’t have as many of those interactions anymore. We can’t attend games in the same way, or gather to watch them in most bars or a neighbor’s basement. Such casual gatherings need to be meticulously thought out, with capacity restrictions and mask requirements in many public settings. You have to weigh the risk of any interactions against your responsibility to family members or people you work with.

In the absence of a coordinated national response, with many industries left on their own or with optional guidance on how to move forward, economic interests prevail and Dez Bryant is left to “drink some wine and cope” after his positive test.


A sports broadcast with it’s fake crowd noise and happy banter isn’t the salve it may have been, but instead a bit jarring in its refusal to acknowledge the new reality that so many people are living through.


The games go on, but there may not be the same joy in watching. Fans, for the most part, are acutely aware of the public health risks leagues are imposing on the community to make this all look normal.

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