Football players at all levels are used to battles against their on-field opponents, who are easy to see though difficult to defend against.
But the toughest opponent many teams have ever faced can’t be seen without a microscope. Yet it has the ability to make players very sick — and cripple entire programs.
The COVID-19 virus has wreaked havoc on players and on high schools, colleges and professional teams, as well as the organizations that govern the sport. It’s also hurt countless others with ties to the game, from high school band boosters who sell food at home games to hotel and restaurant owners who cater to major college and pro fans on weekends.
In Alabama, where nearly 400 high schools play under the auspices of the Alabama High School Athletic Association, the weekly lists of results have seen dozens of entries with a final score of 1-0 — the official score of a forfeited game. Out of the roughly 190 AHSAA games played each week, as many as 30 games a week have not been played due to forfeits or cancellations.
Director of Communications Ron Ingram, who joined the AHSAA staff after more than two decades as the prep sports editor of The Birmingham News, said that about 92% of all scheduled games were played, though some were postponed from their original dates. That means 8% of AHSAA-sanctioned games were not played, with most of those counted as forfeits by the teams that could not play due to a COVID-19 outbreak. (A handful of games were also called off or postponed due to three tropical weather systems that affected the lower part of Alabama.) The only week of the season that did not have a COVID-caused forfeit was the second round of playoffs, which was played last week.
Of the forfeited games, most involved schools that either decided at the beginning of the school year to skip the season entirely, or else decided shortly after the season began to forfeit the rest of their season. In metro Birmingham, Tarrant High School did not play at all, while Midfield High played its first three scheduled games before bailing out on the remainder of the season.
Cancellations and forfeits hit smaller schools harder, Ingram said, and the teams that canceled their seasons entirely were largely Class 1A or 2A teams. Teams of larger schools had enough players on the rosters to allow them to keep playing when some players were out for COVID-19 reasons. But sometimes plain old luck was a factor.
“We had some teams which had some COVID problems, but they had an open date (on the schedule) which happened to fall at the right time,” Ingram said. “If you just don’t have a lot of players, and you get eight or nine sick, it’s just unsafe to put a team out there late in the season.”
The Central Board of the AHSAA decided before the season that member schools would not face any penalties for forfeiting or canceling games for any reason at all, not just COVID-19. Ingram said a few schools called off games just because they had to travel long distances, with teams cooped up in buses for long periods of time, increasing the potential for the coronavirus to spread among players and staff.
Most metro schools were affected by COVID-19 at one time or another, either forfeiting games or winning by forfeit. The first local team to call off a game was Vestavia Hills High, when coach Buddy Anderson — who ended his 43-year career on Oct. 20 with 346 victories, the most of any high school coach in Alabama history — had to sit out the first two weeks after he and his wife tested positive for the virus. One game was then forfeited when other players and staff members also tested positive.
Lost football revenues hurt other prep sports
A mid-season game between Pinson Valley and Mortimer Jordan, both in the Jefferson County School System, was postponed to the next-to-last week of the schedule when the Jordan Blue Devils — already struggling after moving up to Class 6A for the first time — had an outbreak. Then, when the rescheduled date came around, Jordan suffered a second outbreak and had to forfeit the game with the Indians for good, plus their season-ending rivalry game against neighboring Gardendale.
Jordan Principal Craig Kanaday said that between the forfeits and the reduction in the allowed capacity at Jimmie Driver Stadium, the biggest losses didn’t come on the scoreboard, but at the ticket booth.
Kanaday said the Devils usually brought in as much as $100,000 per season at the gate in past years, including post-season games to which they usually advanced as a powerhouse in Class 5A. But with the effects of the pandemic and not making the playoffs in Class 6A’s toughest region, ticket revenues were down by about 80%. That has consequences for all the other sports in which Jordan competes, as many don’t have ticket-buying spectators, so football pays their bills.
“It will be a ripple effect for sure,” Kanaday said. “There will just be things that go undone because that revenue does carry us in keeping up the maintenance of fields and equipment. … Our programs do their best to be self-sufficient, but we know that football revenue is the big carrier.”
Kanaday added that JefCoEd did help out with some football costs this season to cover game officials, ticket takers, electricity for field lights and similar expenses. Jordan also benefitted greatly from the artificial turf that was installed a few years ago, which greatly reduced maintenance costs over natural grass fields.
The Blue Machine marching band has also been hit hard, as much of its fund-raising comes from concession sales at football games.
“That’s their main money-maker … and they do quite well on it,” Kanaday said. “And we can’t hold benefits or anything like that right now, it’s really not possible. So we’re really relying on donations and booster clubs, and our local sponsors. Without that, it would be hard to make budget.”
Local businesses have always been big supporters of their high school sports programs, in good times and bad.
But Mortimer Jordan faces a situation similar to that of many rural schools. Its zone covers Kimberly, Morris, Warrior and Trafford, all of which are primarily bedroom communities with few businesses, particularly retailers that drive sales tax receipts for cities. In the four towns Jordan serves, you’ll find a pair of Dollar General stores, a couple of grocery stores and assorted restaurants, but most residents go to Gardendale, Fultondale or Pinson to do most of their shopping.
“We do not get outside help. Our local municipalities are good to assist us with events, but we don’t ask them for money. We never have. … Without our football revenues, there’s a lot of things we would do without,” Kanaday said. “It costs $300 or $400 to outfit a kid now in football, and that’s kind of minimal. You look at helmets and shoulder pads and uniforms — it’s not cheap.”
Kanaday has had to dip into his principal’s reserve fund, a kind of rainy-day fund, to help with some expenses. “That’s your money you set aside for needy times, and I’ve had to exhaust some of that, but I’ll always do that,” he said.
When games were played, crowds were low because state mandates forced schools to reduce stadium capacity by two-thirds or more, and all tickets had to be purchased online in advance. The AHSAA allowed teams to move playoff games to larger stadiums nearby when feasible.
Just how much of a financial hit school athletic programs have taken isn’t fully known yet, especially the knock-on effects on other sports that are funded primarily through football revenues.
Likewise, extracurricular activities such as cheer squads and marching bands will also suffer, as many raise funds at football games through concession stands and the like. The AHSAA itself derives much of its revenues from its portion of playoff ticket sales. Ingram said the association won’t know how much the cutbacks will hurt until the playoffs end with the Super 7 State Championship games at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Dec. 2-4.
Pandemic causes chaos for college games
Meanwhile, college football has also felt the effect of the pandemic, particularly in the state of Alabama.
Last weekend, the state’s top three programs — Alabama, Auburn were all out of action because their games were called off when
opponents couldn’t play on account of COVID-19. For Alabama and Auburn, their games last Saturday were officially postponed, though the Crimson Tide’s game with LSU is in doubt if Alabama advances to the Southeastern Conference championship game on Dec. 19 in Atlanta. The Tigers’ game at Mississippi State was moved to Dec. 12. It was the second straight weekend without a game for the Tigers and the Tide, as both had bye weeks on Nov. 7.
Already one SEC game this weekend, Ole Miss at Texas A&M, has been postponed. As of Wednesday, at least six other NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision games were also canceled or rescheduled, including Atlantic Coast Conference matchups featuring Miami at Georgia Tech and Wake Forest at Duke. The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, ranked 24th in the Associated Press poll, called off their game against Central Arkansas.
The SEC had a particularly rough time last week, as four of its seven scheduled games were not played. The conference had already cut its schedule for the season down to 10 games, all against other SEC teams, and began play three weeks later than normal. The SEC Championship Game was moved to two weeks later than normal and will be played Dec. 19.
UAB also had a home game against Conference USA foe North Texas canceled last Saturday, and a road game against University of Texas-El Paso scheduled for Friday night is also off. UTEP had previously moved that game away from El Paso to Midland, Texas because of COVID-19 problems at home, then canceled the contest altogether.
As bad as it’s been for the SEC, it could have been worse. The NCAA and its Power Five conferences struggled in the summer with whether to play the season at all. The Big Ten and Pac-12 initially announced they would not play, but backtracked when the SEC, ACC and Big 12 announced they would compete with shortened conference-only schedules. The Pac-12 began its schedule just two weekends ago, with two teams — Arizona and Arizona State — not starting until last Saturday because of COVID cancellations. The University of Utah has yet to play a game, as its first two were called off.
As the Power Five conferences shrink their schedules to just member schools, games against non-conference opponents have fallen by the wayside. Many of those are so-called “paycheck games,” where big powerhouse teams pay substantial amounts to smaller schools for a home game that’s almost always a victory for the host team. In return for being thrashed by their hosts, the game fees often provide a big boost to the small opponent.
The Southern Conference, which counts the Samford Bulldogs as a member, is among nine conferences in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision — still called Division I-AA by many fans — moving to a spring schedule. Samford will begin play on Feb. 20 and is currently scheduled to play six games.
The four conferences that aren’t moving to a spring schedule have officially canceled their seasons, though some may reconsider and play a spring schedule later.
Almost all conferences are allowing individual schools to schedule fall games on their own against non-conference teams. North Alabama, transitioning to the FCS from Division II, has already played three games this fall and faces undefeated and eighth-ranked Brigham Young this Saturday for its final fall game. Jacksonville State has played four fall games (one against North Alabama), but will also play a spring schedule in the Ohio Valley Conference.
The NCAA moved its FCS playoffs to April, ending with the title game in mid-May, with 16 teams advancing instead of the usual 24.
All fall sports for Division II and Division III, including football, were canceled by the NCAA.
The effects of COVID-19 have not been quite as drastic on the National Football League.
So far, the only major disruption caused by the outbreak has involved the Tennessee Titans. Their game scheduled for Week 4 against Pittsburgh was moved because of an outbreak in the Titans organization. The team was also taken to task by league officials for various breaches of COVID-19 protocols, including a practice session held by a group of players on their own at a local private school when the Titans’ practice facility was shut down because of the outbreak.
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