With Exasperation, College Football Is Just Trying to Get Through the Playoff

In this malleable, ebb-and-flow pandemic world, there may be one certainty gleaned from the last nearly two years of living with the coronavirus: that here and there may not look very much alike.

When New York City was all sirens, silence and grim isolation during the first wave of the pandemic, it was easy for someone in, say, Medicine Lodge, Kan., to shrug and wonder what all the fuss was over this coronavirus — until a couple months later when it swept through the plains.

It has continued since, this cresting and falling, with mask and vaccine mandates, new variants, and the uncomfortable and unrelenting dance for policymakers — who have been tugged one way by science (that quickly shifts) and another by a fitful business community (that may not always tend to its employees’ well being with the same vigor it tends to the bottom line).

Sports have been no different.

Its myth makers often promote sports as a better version of ourselves, long proclaiming the playing surface to be America’s true egalitarian workplace, where merit is supreme, which is true — as long as you weren’t a Black baseball player or quarterback, or openly gay, or a woman coach at the wrong times. In other words, it has been like many other workplaces.

And so, as the latest wave — spurred by the Delta and Omicron variants — is spreading across the United States from east to west, leading to more than 300,000 new cases per day, more than doubling in the last two weeks, there has been no exemption for sports.

The N.F.L., which moved three games earlier this month because of virus outbreaks, had 96 players test positive for the virus on Monday. Dozens of N.H.L. games have been postponed or canceled and the league paused activities last week. Seven of the N.B.A.’s 30 head coaches are unavailable for various virus-related reasons, with Philadelphia’s Doc Rivers and Denver’s Michael Malone, whose team’s game against Golden State was postponed, becoming sidelined on Thursday.

In college sports, hundreds of men’s and women’s basketball games have been canceled or postponed, and many teams have played short-handed — like Seton Hall, whose men’s team missed six players Wednesday in a narrow loss to Providence. And seven football programs have bowed out of bowl games because of virus outbreaks within their teams. One of them, U.C.L.A., withdrew from the Holiday Bowl just hours before Tuesday’s scheduled kickoff.

Most of the teams that could not play were overwhelmed quickly by outbreaks. Boston College had one player test positive just before it left for the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Md., on Dec. 22. He was left behind. By Dec. 25, more players had tested positive. There were more again on Sunday. With more than 40 players unavailable because of the virus, injuries, transfers and opt-outs, the school decided it could not safely play the game that had been scheduled for Monday.

At Virginia, position meetings were moved to the indoor practice field, where the garage doors on two sides of the building can be rolled up to allow for better ventilation. Flat screens were mounted to walls, folding chairs were set up in groups and projectors were put in place. Still, a handful of positive tests last week prompted the entire team to be tested on Christmas Day. When the tests came back on Sunday morning, there enough positives that the team bowed out of the Fenway Bowl, which had been scheduled for Wednesday.

An athletic trainer at a school that had to cancel its bowl game said one of his toughest tasks is explaining to athletes and coaches why guidelines keep changing, as they did this week when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortened the window for isolation to five days from 10, and did not recommend a negative test to end the isolation, which has generated criticism from some scientists.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of frustration and exhaustion,” said the trainer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said the topic was too politically fraught. “It takes a lot of education and repeat education of where you’re at, over and over and over again. Sometimes they look at you like: ‘What are you talking about? Last month you told us something else.’”

Then there is the crown jewel of the college football season, the four-team playoff that begins Friday with a pair of semifinals: No. 1 Alabama against No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl outside Dallas, and No. 2 Michigan versus No. 3 Georgia in the Orange Bowl near Miami.

What’s going on with the virus in the rest of the country is a subject that few associated with the games would care to address. There have been a handful of cases to pop up — two with Alabama coaches, others with players for Georgia and Michigan — and the universities are not required to test vaccinated players, even as the Omicron variant has been successful in infecting vaccinated people. Perhaps there will be announcements on Friday of players who are unavailable, as there were last season.

In truth, though, the two semifinal games and the Jan. 10 championship game in Indianapolis are too valuable to be waylaid by the virus. ESPN has paid the College Football Playoff about $470 million for the rights to this year’s games, according to The Associated Press.

And the games have been protected as such. Practices have been closed to the news media since Tuesday — even the usual 15 minutes or so when camera crews collect footage of players stretching — so there will be no monitoring of whether anyone is missing, which might prompt questions about why. Media sessions were made remote and have been, shall we say, curated.

In one of them on Wednesday, Alabama receiver Slade Bolden was asked if, with vaccines so prevalent, he thought we had been through the worst of the pandemic. “I mean, I never know when it’s actually going to end,” he said. “I hope it ends as soon as possible.”

He was asked a follow-up question: When was the last time he’d been tested?

“I honestly can’t tell you because we usually don’t get tested unless we have symptoms,” he said. (That is in keeping with N.C.A.A. guidelines, which have called for testing only for symptomatic players and unvaccinated players within 72 hours of kickoff.)

That last exchange, though, was withheld from the transcripts that are distributed more widely to the news media, as was another about the virus with Cincinnati tight end Josh Whyle, who said he will have 25 family members traveling to the game.

Scottie Rodgers, the spokesman for the Cotton Bowl, said all transcripts are edited “for accuracy and to make sure the quotes included provide substantive content.”

Rodgers did not respond to a follow-up email asking what about coronavirus questions were not considered substantive content. There was, however, plenty of back-and-forth in the transcripts on the merits of the Cincinnati area’s distinctive chili.

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