College Football is Back and Jesus It’s Grim

“Football is back, kind of, for some teams."

“Football is back, kind of, for some teams,”  the voiceover in a Dr. Pepper ad insists, an attempt at some kind of gallows humor. “Whatever this is, football is back.”

An allegedly inspirational montage opens the show, rife with military symbolism. Eagles fly, military jets fly, people cheer, unpaid football players carry the American flag onto the field. “They’re waving a flag, and it is not one of surrender,” says the voiceover, implying not playing football would have equated to “surrender” in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic. 

Big & Rich sing “Comin’ To Your City,” the show’s suddenly irrelevant theme — it doesn’t really matter if GameDay is in “your city,” a point driven home by the performatively empty space around the show’s set. In the vintage intro, a crowd of people sing and yell along close to one another with, of course, no masks on. 

The camera pans over an empty Hard Rock stadium — the excess of which is meant to be as impressive as an actual cathedral — and then to those happy people’s substitutes, the so-called “virtual fans,” who are in fact real, not virtual; they are really sitting in their living rooms waving handmade signs.

“Pal I’ll tell you, it seems weird with you not here, but at least we have a really great slate of games today with the SEC opening up, right?” host Rece Davis asks analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who is working remotely because he’s been exposed to COVID-19. 

No matter, the SEC is back, baby. “With the SEC starting, the season can now officially begin,” says Corso, introducing a slate of highlights (“built by Home Depot”) that may as well have taken place a lifetime ago, with their stands full of carefree fans standing so, so close together. “This is a game for gladiators,” Davis adds, apparently not hearing the grim truth in that.

A shot of Ole Miss’s Vaughn-Hemingway Stadium, conspicuously empty save a large “FACE COVERINGS REQUIRED” sign centered in the frame. Viewers are reassured that the 64,000 capacity facility would only be “about 25 percent full.” Then a shot of LSU’s Tiger Stadium, which the panel calls by its more familiar name: Death Valley. “Not all of our players, but most of our players have caught it,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron had told reporters the week prior of his team’s COVID testing. “I think that hopefully they won’t catch it again, and hopefully they’re not out for games.”

Games are previewed hastily, interrupted by occasional mention of postponements — which are only relevant insofar as they affect the game, of course. NC State versus Virginia Tech is among the primetime match-ups featured, in part because it’s the Hokies’ first game of the season: the squad’s opener against Virginia had been postponed in the wake of a spike in COVID-19 cases among players. Virginia Tech will wind up winning the game without their defensive coordinator, who sits out for undisclosed reasons (there are no requirements that schools report when players or staff test positive for COVID-19); a few days later, the school — which is still holding in-person classes — will break 1,000 COVID-19 cases. (For its part, NC State also had a COVID-19 outbreak within its athletic department, and moved all undergraduate classes online after more than 500 students were in quarantine ten days after the start of the fall term.) 

None of this is noted on the program, except for the absence of “one of the best DBs in the conference, Caleb Farley, who opted out.” Farley had become one of the first prominent college players to opt out of the season due to concerns about the pandemic in early August, when he penned an essay for Peter King’s Football Morning In America column:

“This year at Virginia Tech, at our workouts, I started having deep concerns about staying healthy,”  he wrote. “Guys were going home, going to Myrtle Beach, coming back to campus, and we weren’t getting tested. We’re all together, working out, close to each other, and you have no real idea who might have it, if anybody might have it. One day I looked around, and we were like 100-deep in our indoor facility, no masks. My concern grew more and more.”

Focused watching football game at home

Farley’s candid depiction of life as a college athlete is not GameDay fodder, though. Instead viewers get a graphic showing Baylor football’s three canceled games: 1) versus Ole Miss “got wiped out by the pandemic,” in Davis’ words; 2) “then Louisiana Tech had problems with COVID testing” 3) Houston had to cancel because “contact tracing got them.” By “got them,” Davis means that Baylor did not have the minimum number of players required by the Big 12 — 53 — eligible to play because too many of them had either been exposed to the coronavirus or tested positive. Again, schools are not obliged by the NCAA to share any specific numbers. 

When Baylor’s game versus Kansas is broadcast in primetime, cameras will show students in the 25 percent-full stadium maskless and standing close to one another. The university has seen over 1,000 cases of COVID-19 since the school year began. 

The commentators make picks, without explicitly articulating that those picks are to make bets; bets whose stakes are a tiny fraction as high as those college football players across the country are staring down. 

A favorite cliché, “overcoming adversity,” makes its first appearance paired with the onscreen image of Florida State University’s mascot: a Seminole man, his face painted and his mouth open as though he is mid-shout; his feather hair ornament bears the name “FSU.” (The logo was updated in 2014.) 

Said “adversity” is outlined with uncharacteristic thoroughness: Mike Norvell, the team’s head coach, “had the situation following George Floyd’s death which has been rectified and they’ve come together as a result of that,” according to Davis. What actually happened was that Norvell told reporters that he had spoken with every player on the mostly Black team individually about Floyd’s killing, when in reality — as star defensive lineman Marvin Wilson pointed out on Twitter — he had not. A few weeks later, multiple FSU players tested positive for COVID-19 and one receiver, Warren Thompson, accused FSU administrators of lying to players about who had and hadn’t tested positive. 

“Being a Student Athlete is difficult during this time and the proper leadership regarding these problems does not exist,” Thompson wrote on Instagram. “During this entire week of camp I have been lied to multiple times about the conditions of other players’ health as well as mine. Our leadership is based off an ‘I’ mentality with them only worried about their own future rather than their own athletes. I have been ridiculed about speaking up regarding this issue, and it needs to be addressed for myself to safely continue the season.” (He later issued a public apology, though what he had to apologize for is unclear.) 

Then, a week before the team’s second game — a network primetime game against Miami — Norvell himself tested positive for COVID-19. Some more “adversity,” shown on Gameday by Norvell coaching his team over video (Davis calls him a “21st-century Bear Bryant”). “Just like we talked about through camp, this provided an opportunity to show how to respond to adversity,” Norvell says, his face framed by FSU fans enthusiastically doing the Tomahawk Chop — an unabashedly racist FSU invention that Corso later demonstrates as part the GameDay finale. `

The gloss and pomp create ad space purchased to sell pizza, cars, groceries, car insurance, lottery tickets, fast casual dining, credit cards, hardware, tires and water. As one Coors Light ad put it, “Who cares, it’s football.”

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