In the weeks leading up to the start of the 2021 college
football season, I read numerous warnings from members of the media warning of
the risk of full stadiums with high numbers of unvaccinated fans contributing
to the spread of COVID-19. And having attended a game with over 90,000 fans
over the weekend, I understand the concerns from a health perspective. But I
also haven’t seen data from the first two weeks of the season showing a large
spike in cases. Maybe it’s out there and just hasn’t been collected or
reported. But to me, there also seems to be a difference in how the media view
college football compared to the NFL, other sports and leagues, and
non-sporting events. I asked these questions in my latest newspaper column.
The Alabama-Florida college football game felt like a
return to pre-pandemic life
I attended the Alabama-Florida game at The Swamp with my
daughter over the weekend. While the battle on the field was great, what struck
me was how amazing the environment was. The fifth-highest attendance in Gators’
football history. Huge tailgates everywhere. Thousands of Alabama fans who
traveled to Gainesville. Packed bars and restaurants. Some of the loudest
cheers you will ever hear.
And maybe 10 people in masks.
College football fans across the country are choosing to
attend games despite COVID-19
To me, the game was a celebration of college football and
freedom. Fans have decided the benefits of attending these games in person
outweighs their personal risk from COVID-19. And it’s not just Florida, or the
South. It’s happening across the country. Ohio State took on Oregon in Columbus
with 100,482 fans in attendance. The “white out” game at Penn State against
Auburn? 109,958 fans were there. Even in Los Angeles, over 68,000 fans attended
the LSU-UCLA contest.
Experts will say that it could take weeks or months before
we know if these packed college football stadiums led to a surge in COVID-19
cases. I agree – somewhat. I’d argue we will never really know because there
are too many variables.
The difficulty of proving full stadiums cause a surge in
Several studies have tried to show the risk – or lack
thereof – to fans in NCAA and NFL stadiums last season, with differing results.
At least with college football, the data on COVID-19 cases after a game in
front of 90,000+ fans are tricky for several reasons.
One, a huge percentage of fans, both for the home and
visiting teams, travel from quite a distance. We drove over 300 miles from Charleston
to Gainesville. A huge number of my friends traveled from here to Clemson for
the Georgia Tech game. If these fans caught the virus at the game, they
wouldn’t know it until days later, once they’re home. The case would be
reported in their home city and likely be missed by people studying cases in
the city or county where the game was.
Second, how can officials know someone in Ann Arbor,
Columbus, or Baton Rouge developed COVID-19 from attending a football game and
not from bars or restaurants that weekend? Sure, patients can tell contact
tracers that they went to the game. But the large epidemiology studies that
look at these cases and population data for those counties and states can’t
tell what percentage of the cases came from the games instead of bars,
tailgates or even normal daily activities.
The media warned of the risk of COVID-19 and college
Before the season, numerous media pundits warned us about
stadiums packed with unvaccinated, unmasked fans. Just a quick Google search
this morning of “college football attendance COVID-19” turned up these
headlines in the first few pages of results: Will College Football Games Become
Covid-19 Coronavirus Superspreader Events? (Forbes) Is College Football
Making the Pandemic Worse? (The New Yorker) Ohio State fans: Doctors
urge caution as football returns (The Columbus Dispatch).
Interestingly, I also did a Google search for “NFL
attendance COVID-19.” 10 pages of results has not turned up a single article
predicting NFL games would be superspreader events or contribute to the
Why is there little media concern about the NFL and
What’s different about the NFL versus college football in
the media’s eyes? Is it that many NFL stadiums are smaller than The Big House,
The Swamp or Death Valley? Maybe. Is it that many of the cities where the NFL
games are being played require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test
to attend? It’s possible. Is it that fans who go to NFL games mostly live in
those cities and don’t have to travel? Could be. Is it because the NFL appeals
to left-leaning columnists due to its social and political views? I don’t know.
And why college football and not the Emmy Awards, which were
held Sunday in an enclosed tent with no masks? The Los Angeles County Health
Department, which requires masks for vaccinated and unvaccinated people,
appears to have made an exception for the event because the event was a
“TV production” and celebrities present were considered
Is it a political attack on the sport?
I’m not arguing any of this is right or wrong as much as I
wonder why college football is criticized more than other sports or events.
Maybe it’s all political, as some people close to me believe. All you Ohio
State, Michigan, Penn State, and Notre Dame supporters can yell at me that this
opinion is unfair, but college football has largely become a regional sport,
dominated by teams in the South. The last 17 college football national
champions reside in states won by Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential
election. NFL teams are generally in larger urban cities with mostly liberal
It seems clear that college football fans have decided that
they want to return to normal life after 18 months of coronavirus restrictions.
They want to travel to games, tailgate, and scream for their teams with tens of
thousands of other fans. As a physician, I recognize the concerns. As a
lifelong sports fan though, I love it.
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my September 22, 2021 sports medicine column in The Post and Courier.