A Season of Footnotes Limps to Its Conclusion

A Season of Footnotes Limps to Its Conclusion

Sarah Fuller has been in far more demanding circumstances than she was on Saturday. Just last week she was in goal for the Vanderbilt women’s soccer team during its victory in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game. But when Fuller took the field with the Vanderbilt football team on Saturday and chipped the second-half kickoff about 30 yards downfield against Missouri, she became the first woman to play in one of college football’s top conferences.

If, as Fuller hoped, her modest (for her) kick had inspired girls and women to do big things — then good for her. (As the Miami Marlins’ Kim Ng, who recently became Major League Baseball’s first female general manager after decades of trying, noted of women trying to break gender barriers, “You can’t be it if you can’t see it.”)

And, really, if the Vanderbilt football team had executed anywhere near as well as Fuller did with her deft kick, which a Missouri player fell on, the Commodores would not be winless after eight games, including the 41-0 defeat at Missouri. And Derek Mason, the team’s coach, might still be employed. He was fired Sunday, shown the door one day after opening one for Fuller.

Still, it is worth noting the context in which Fuller appeared: during a pandemic that continues to accelerate, with more than 205,000 new cases reported in the United States on Friday.

Fuller had her opportunity after Vanderbilt’s starting kicker opted out of the season because of concerns about the coronavirus and almost all of its current kickers, holders and long snappers were sidelined last week after coming into contact with someone who had contracted the virus. That’s all it took for Fuller to be enlisted.

In this “make it up as we go along” asterisk of a college football season, why should historical footnotes be any different?

Consider Saturday: an Iron Bowl played before a smattering of fans, with the coach of top-ranked Alabama, Nick Saban, watching his team’s romp over No. 22 Auburn from home because he had tested positive for the virus. Ryan Day, the coach of fourth-ranked Ohio State, also contracted the virus, but he did not miss his team’s game against Illinois because it was canceled late Friday night. Florida State’s game was called off hours before kickoff for the second consecutive Saturday — one of 19 games wiped out last week. Days like that have increasingly become normalized.

In fact, Ohio State’s biggest obstacle to reaching the College Football Playoff might be the virus. If the unbeaten Buckeyes (4-0), who have had two games canceled, cannot play either of their final two games — against hapless Michigan State (2-3) and hopeless Michigan (2-4) — they will probably not have enough completed games to be eligible for the Big Ten championship game, and thus, it seems, out of contention for the Playoff.

That could put the Buckeyes in the perverse position of hoping for enough Big Ten cancellations — at least eight of the remaining 12 other games — so the threshold for qualifying for the conference title game is lowered from six games played to five, or of asking the Big Ten to rewrite its rules.

If not, their fate will be in the hands of the College Football Playoff committee, which has already made its most stupefying decision of the year — choosing to fly its 13 members (most of whom are in their 60s) to Grapevine, Texas, each week because, as the Playoff’s executive director, Bill Hancock, told ESPN: “We’re asking players and coaches to travel every week. The least we can do is ask the selection committee members to travel.”

So much, apparently, for vicarious guilt.

For now, the limping and wheezing will continue as college football enters its final stretch, with conference championship games, bowls and the playoffs approaching (or not). Stanford and San Jose State had the rest of their seasons thrown into doubt on Saturday when health officials in Santa Clara County, Calif., banned all contact sports at the high school, college and professional level until at least Dec. 21. Meanwhile, the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium became the eighth bowl game to be canceled.

And at Ohio State, they are mulling what to do next.

Dr. Jim Borchers, the team physician, told reporters on Saturday that Ohio State exceeded the 7.5 percent population positivity rate threshold on Friday, meaning that at least 13 people among the football program’s population of 170 players, coaches and staff members had contracted the virus. (The university declined to release the test numbers.) Dr. Borchers said that the first sign of an increase in cases appeared on Wednesday, but that it was not enough to cause the program to pause until two days later.

According to Big Ten rules, Ohio State would be required to shut down football activities for seven days if its population positivity rate remained above 7.5 percent and its test positivity rate (positive tests divided by number of tests administered) reached 5 percent based on a seven-day average. Dr. Borchers said the test positivity rate had not reached 5 percent, so the decision was up to Ohio State.

(The other Big Ten teams that had to cancel games because of outbreaks — Wisconsin and Maryland — had to cancel the next week, too.)

This will be the latest moment during the pandemic when Ohio State’s financial interests have collided with health and safety concerns. When players returned to campus for summer workouts, they were required to sign a liability waiver. And after Big Ten presidents chose not to play football this fall after consulting with their medical advisory board, Day was at the front of a protest movement that prompted them to reverse course.

In one sense, though, Ohio State’s leaders are no different from other administrators who are pushing into the teeth of the pandemic. They say their decision on whether to play — Day figures the Buckeyes could be ready for a game on Saturday as long as they’re able to practice by Thursday — will be made with the health and safety of its players paramount.

Yet forging ahead, with piped-in crowd noise, absent coaches and on-the-fly scheduling as the pandemic only worsens, speaks to a different motivation, the lure of recouping billions in television revenue. So the show, with its unpaid performers, carries on — all the better if there’s a female kicker.

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