Utah’s college football fans see loss of season as symptom of poor pandemic response

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah fans at the end of the game, as Utah faces Oregon in the Pac-12 football championship game in Santa Clara, Calif., on Friday Dec. 6, 2019.

Autumn weekends consist of appointment television in Cate Brabson’s home.

She and her partner watch and cheer for University of Utah football from their home in Park City. They also root for Brabson’s alma mater, Tennessee, and her partner’s, Stanford. If games coincide, they record one and watch it later.

“College football is on for two days,” Brabson said.

There will be little or no college pigskin to watch in 2020. The Pac-12, where Utah and Stanford play, has canceled the season for football and other fall sports. So have the conferences for the Beehive State’s other college football teams. BYU, which does not belong to a conference, still plans to play, but all the scratching has reduced its schedule to three games as of Thursday.

The games have been eliminated due to the coronavirus pandemic. Brabson agrees with the decisions, but isn’t sure it had to come to this.

“I don’t think we have handled this situation responsibly,” she said of the American response to COVID-19. “Would [better policies] allowed us to have college football with 100,000 fans or 60,000 fans in a stadium? That’s hard to say.

“But we might have been able to at least have the players on the field. That’s what the other sports do. And we can’t even manage that.”

Brabson was one of 76 Beehive State college football fans who answered a Salt Lake Tribune online survey giving their reactions to the loss of games. Instead of talking about spread offenses and the merits of 4-3 or 3-4 defenses, the respondents talked about case counts, mortality rates and federalism.

The respondents were nearly evenly split on whether they agreed with the conferences’ decisions. Agree or not, that doesn’t mean the fans are happy.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rain pours down on BYU fans during a lightning delay as Brigham Young University (BYU) hosts the University of Utah, NCAA football in Provo on Thursday Aug. 29, 2019.

The vast majority of the respondents viewed college football as a casualty of a U.S. pandemic response that has yielded far worse results than other developed countries — killing about 160,000 Americans, about 350 of which have been Utahns. Americans have also lost other sporting events, holiday outings, family reunions, and — often — jobs.

“I definitely think [college football] could have been saved,” said Alejandra Aldridge, a BYU fan who received a bachelor’s degree there and is now a doctoral candidate in political science at Stanford. “I think it’s a reflection of a lot of missteps not just at the federal level but a lot of levels.”

Federalism gives power to state and local governments, and Aldridge wishes they had done more to restrict gatherings and require masks. She’s not sure the loss of college football will change any minds, however.

“I don’t want this to be the outcome,” Aldridge said, “but people who don’t want there to be a shutdown will just see it as more overreaction by people on the left.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU fans celebrate a late touchdown as BYU hosts the University of Massachusetts, NCAA football in Provo, Saturday November 18, 2017.

Michael Serazio is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Boston College who has studied the political persuasions of sports fans. He doesn’t know of research predicting whether the loss of college football will change any votes in November. He suspects the cancellations will be filtered through the same partisan lenses that has infected the entire pandemic.

“I struggle with what it takes for people to take this seriously,” Serazio said Thursday. “I would have thought that sickness and death would have been the thing. I would have thought schools not reopening would have been the thing.”

Boston College plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It, along with the Southeastern Conference, where Tennessee plays, and the Big 12 plan to hold shortened football seasons, but there’s doubts as to whether that can happen.

Cassie Larimer is an incoming sophomore at BYU who thinks canceling college football — and much of the pandemic response — has been a mistake. She favors keeping the economy open and installing more safeguards so the virus doesn’t enter nursing homes and other vulnerable populations. Failing to execute coherent policies, Larimer said, pushed college presidents into making their choices to cancel games.

The pandemic “definitely seems a lot more real now,” Larimer said. “At the beginning stages in March or April, I think I was always saying things would open up by June or July at the latest, but now it’s pretty obvious that it’s a lot bigger than we thought.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Aggies football players and students celebrate with the Old Wagon Wheel after the game at Merlin Olsen Field at Maverik Stadium Friday, September 29, 2017. Utah State Aggies defeated Brigham Young Cougars 40-24.

Erin Anderson and her husband are Utah State football season ticket holders. She agrees with the Mountain West Conference’s decision to cancel its football season because she worries that an influx of people into Cache County on Saturdays would lead to another coronavirus spike there.

Anderson doesn’t know if the college football season could have been saved, but believes the state of Utah could have done more.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have opened the state so soon,” Anderson said. “With a mask mandate, that would have helped” save the season.

A few Aggie players live in Anderson’s neighborhood in Logan. Anderson saw the players — one at a time — running drills in their backyard this summer when they couldn’t go to team workouts.

“I do feel terribly for the athletes that have to sit out a season when they work hard for it,” Anderson said.

Mike Rose, of Salt Lake City, is on the board of the Crimson Club, a University of Utah athletics booster organization. Thursday, he lamented the loss of all the other fall sports — from soccer to volleyball to cross country.

“We’re jumping up and down just about football,” Rose said, “but there are a lot of kids that don’t get any notoriety or crowd support that are losing just as much.”

Even without the Utes playing on fall Saturdays, Rose plans to tailgate. He’ll just do it in his backyard with a few friends in his so-called bubble.

He wishes he could spend the time with more people who could quit arguing about pandemic politics.

“We probably need something that can galvanize us all together,” Rose said, “and we aren’t going to have it right now.”