During the years of the Spanish Flu pandemic (1918-20) only some public gatherings were banned. As with our current COVID-19 pandemic, sports leagues and teams persisted in finding ways to keep the games happening. Major League baseball played a normal schedule in 1918 and it was later proved that the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs was a virus “super spreader” event. Professional football’s popularity was yet to happen and college football was still king of the sport. Most colleges played on with only 18 prominent schools canceling their games. (Don’t forget, these were also the years of World War I.)
Fast-forward to 2020 and we still see an America desperate for the normalcy that sporting games like baseball and football mean to so many of us. Teeming with all kinds of emotions and mixed signals, the 2020 season of the National Football League opened last weekend in stadiums empty of any fans, with artificial crowd noised played, with athletes kneeling, standing or hiding in their locker rooms while the Star Spangled Banner was played. But the games were played and the TV action and replays — even the commercials — were literally sights for sore eyes.
This September across Sonoma County there will be no Friday Night Lights at high school football fields. Many things feel strange about living in these times of a COVID-19 pandemic but how can we feel like we still live in America if there is no football? Now surpassing baseball as our national pastime, football has become both a national ritual when millions watch it on TV and football is a fundamental noun we use when describing what a hometown is about.
Every hometown, like Cloverdale, Healdsburg, Windsor, Sebastopol and Forestville has a hometown quarterback, starting team standouts, team captains, surprise contributors, unsung yeoman, volunteer coaches, a cheering squad, bleachers full of hometown fans, proud alumni and beaming parents. Except this year.
Whether we went to high school 10, 20 or even 50 years ago, chances are we still remember our team’s quarterback’s name. And that football quarterback will tell us that year was one of the very best years of his life, no matter how much time has passed since. 2020 will not have any of those quarterbacks. It’s as if the high school yearbooks will have to be printed this year with lots of blank pages. (There is hope that local high school football might be played in the spring of 2021, but those chances look dim as the coronavirus keeps spreading.)
A chief appeal of football, like all sporting events, is it offers us a fun distraction from other parts of life like wildfires, worries and politics. Here, in 2020, there’s no lack of things from which we’d love to be distracted. But even football can’t save us from these divisive, uncertain and angry times that our American society has very rarely confronted. Watching last weekend’s NFL TV football games meant we had to choose sides between players who kneeled in solidarity with Black Lives Matter or join the fans in Kansas City who booed the players for not standing.
Remember the phrase “political football” which is meant to describe a topic or question too hot to handle? Well, guess what? Now football has become a political football. Four years ago when 49er’s quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the National Anthem almost no one knew what he was protesting. Very few other players joined him and Kaepernick has been without a team or quarterback job ever since. Yet his likeness was featured on Sunday TV in a NFL-sponsored video about social justice and racial equality. Talk about confusing. How about hypocritical and dishonest, too?
There are lots of places where we Americans keep talking past one another and not listening. Now it’s happening to our football. Former Black NFL coach Tony Dungy on Sunday said: “This isn’t about the flag; it’s not about Black and white. It’s about making our country a better place to live.” The old (apolitical) way we used to play and watch football needs to be part of that.