Calkins: No, there won’t be football

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 06, 2020 8:41 AM CT | Published: April 06, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Geoff Calkins
Daily Memphian

Geoff Calkins

Geoff Calkins has been chronicling Memphis and Memphis sports for more than two decades. He is host of "The Geoff Calkins Show" from 9-11 a.m. M-F on 92.9 FM. Calkins has been named the best sports columnist in the country five times by the Associated Press sports editors, but still figures his best columns are about the people who make Memphis what it is.

No, there won’t be football.

Of course there won’t be football.

Not the way we have come to recognize it, at least. Not starting on Labor Day weekend, with jam-packed stadiums.

This isn’t me saying it. This is from someone who knows as much about viruses as Bill Belichick knows about halftime adjustments, as Patrick Mahomes knows about spinning a football, as Jimmy Sexton knows about contract extensions.

This is from Jon McCullers — pediatrician-in-chief at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and associate dean at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine — who is an expert on influenza and pandemics and happens to be leading a symposium Monday, April 6, on how Memphis can avoid a second wave of COVID-19 infections this fall.

Hint: It does not involve selling out the Liberty Bowl.

“I don’t think we’re going to have sports for the next year in any meaningful way,” McCullers told me. “I think we’re going to have some sort of adaptation of sports without fans that’s going to become workable probably in 6-9 months. It’s not going to be what we’re used to. It’s going to be some hybrid that’s going to tide us through. I think we’ll be back to normal in two years.“

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It does not give McCullers any pleasure to say this, so you know. He’s as crazy about sports as the rest of us.

He went to the University of Virginia so he loves the Cavaliers. He has had season tickets to the Grizzlies. He is a lifelong fan of the Minnesota Vikings for the noblest of reasons — because his father and brother pulled for the Washington Redskins, so he naturally pulled against the Redskins, and one glorious day Minnesota running back Chuck Foreman scored two touchdowns to defeat the Redskins and make young McCullers a Vikings fans for good.

The guy loves sports. But he happens to be a scientist. And the science tells him we’re a long way from life as we once knew it.

“I think if you just take Memphis and you think about Memphis for a minute,” he said. “We’re starting to ramp up the cases and the hospitalizations and the deaths. I’m looking at another 8-12 weeks when we’re going to have disease. Ramping up for two to four weeks, a little peak, then ramping down for two to four weeks. At most, we have three more months of this, hopefully it’s just a couple months.

“After we get that first wave through, maybe we have a period where we can get back to normal or to close to normal. But this is not going away. It’s going to come back. You’re going to have a second wave in the fall maybe, or the winter, and then subsequent waves after that.”

The question, of course, is how to crank up the country in the midst of all that. When and how do we reopen businesses? When and how do we open schools? That’s vastly more important than when and how we reopen stadiums. Everyone can agree on that.

But what happens to our beloved games after the first wave passes? How are leagues and conferences supposed to proceed? It’s hard to imagine packing 80,000 fans into stadiums any time soon. But how about playing games without fans? Wouldn’t that work until we get the virus entirely under control?

“The sports fan in me would like nothing more than for there to be a break in the pandemic, for the NFL to say we’re going ahead, we’re going to have this either with or without fans,” McCullers said. “The practical side of me says that even if they start it up, you’ll see what happened to the NBA season. Someone will test positive and they’ll have to shut the whole thing down and it’ll be the same thing all over again.”

McCullers then offered up a hypothetical. Let’s say the NFL decided to go ahead and play games without fans. And let’s say the NFL resolved, in advance, that it was willing to put up with a certain level of infection without closing the whole thing down. So if an offensive lineman from the Vikings tested positive, they wouldn’t shut down the league in the same way they once shut down the NBA when a single player tested positive. They’d just quarantine the player and the games would go on. But what if the offensive lineman brought the virus home to his mother? And what if the mother fell into a coma? Would we be willing to tolerate that in the interest of games? 

“I just don’t see it being workable to have a normal football season with more waves of this coming through,” McCullers said. “Maybe they could start the NBA season, if they move it back to Christmas, the way some people have talked about. It depends on how well these waves go and how well we control them. If you look at what South Korea and Iceland and some of these countries have done in managing the virus, can we get to that point in the next six months when you could have sports without the crowds? I suppose that’s possible.”

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It’s hard to hear this, for all kinds of reasons, and not just because we miss our games. The games have come to symbolize life as it used to be, life when we had the luxury of caring about something so trivial as games. For many of us, the pandemic started when the NBA suspended its season and when the NCAA canceled its tournament. That’s when it got real. So we look forward to football not just because we love football but because we look forward to the football season as a time — five months from now! — when we might be able to be ourselves again.

That is the real meaning of McCuller’s message. It’s not about football at all. It’s about taking the necessary steps to subdue a pandemic that will be with us well into the autumn. It’s about mustering the sort of massive public health response — including widespread testing — that we should have been prepared for all along.

Until we can do that, we won’t have sports the way you remember them.

“Believe me, I want that as much as anyone,” McCullers said. “I hope I’m wrong. I’m optimistic we’ll get back there eventually. But it may take two years.”


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