Thursday, March 4, 2021
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In a Strange and Challenging Year, a Word of Support for Student-Athletes

Here we are on Dec. 1, 2020. In 31 days we can turn the page on 2020 and move into a new year. Except, the pandemic forecast for 2021 isn’t looking good at this moment, so maybe we all ought to just set our sights on 2022 and skip 2021 as well. Or as the old joke goes for those who don’t recall the 1980s very fondly, well, a lot of us just had two 70’s and went straight to the 90’s.

Or, instead of looking ahead, why don’t we look back at this past weekend to the Thanksgiving holiday to see if we had any positive experiences and thoughts? 

Well…  the number of people flying on what is traditionally the busiest travel days of the year – the weekend before and after Thanksgiving – was down 57% from the same days last year. And it’s likely a portion of those who did fly were doing so because many colleges and universities ended in-person classes last week and sent their students home – as Penn State did here in Happy Valley. So a lot of Thanksgiving meals this year were not close to the wonderful family get-togethers that they have been in the past. In our house there were only three of us eating turkey rather than the house full we had last year. Although we were thankful for what we had, we were missing a lot too. 

How about the media’s focus during this Thanksgiving holiday? Usually we are treated to multiple uplifting stories about four things – Black Friday, The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, the arrival of holiday season television specials, and football.

The focus on the excitement of Black Friday, one of the biggest shopping days of the year, was noticeably absent this year from everything except my email Inbox. I didn’t see the typical news stories showing people waiting for great opportunities for holiday gifts or talk of what the must-have toy of the year is. I saw a social media post about the run on Cabbage Patch dolls in the 1980s, but that was it. No one in our house even mentioned going out to shop – it was all done online. 

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was held, but only covered a single block of 34th Street and police barricades kept spectators at a safe distance from what little parade there was. No high school bands played, and many segments were taped in advance. The giant balloons that were used required less than 10% of the normal handlers. Depending on your viewpoint it either made for a faster-moving viewing experience or a somber viewing experience. Faster moving because there weren’t extended waits for live segments to queue up and the taped portions were edited, or somber in that the only people there were the ones in the parade.

Even the initial media focus on holiday television specials this year was a bit of a downer, namely the uproar over the Charlie Brown specials no longer being on CBS because of a deal with Apple TV to move them to that subscription service. Many of us viewers were relieved that this was eventually fixed and Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang will grace our televisions via PBS this year. After we dodged that catastrophe, the Hallmark Channel stepped to the plate to get the ball rolling on television specials and went to 24/7 #MiraclesOfChristmas programming on Oct. 18, a week earlier than normal. If you are counting, that means we have now had holiday specials on television for over six weeks already. With so many of us clamoring for entertainment as we spend extended hours in our homes this is sweet music to our ears.

Which brings us to football. Even though many of us are unable to attend games in-person and require our televisions to be our football delivery vehicles, at least we had some positive viewing experiences during the past week. The mood around Happy Valley got a bit lighter when Penn State won its first game of the season on Saturday. In our household our son is on the University at Buffalo football team, which is inspiring to watch this season as they are 4-0 and could possibly go to their third bowl game in a row if they keep winning. So football is a bright spot in this otherwise pandemically-challenged season. 

But although many of us are excited about football providing a diversion, there is a slight downside for those college student-athletes playing the game as we continue through the season.

However, before we go there, I should point out that everyone understands the severity of this pandemic. Over a quarter-million people have died in this country and well over a million worldwide. Tens of millions are out of work here in America. With no vaccine available yet and climbing case counts we are likely looking at continued restrictions through the winter and spring. So, the simple fact that we are able to have football games at all is appreciated by everyone involved – fans and participants alike.

And football provides a diversion that many people need right now. Having been restricted for over eight months, millions and millions of football fans in this country can watch and enjoy the games that are being played. Teams are doing everything they can to ensure the safety of the players, staffs and coaches, and that attention to safety will continue. It’s understandable that there are those who might find playing games at this time to be outlandish given the circumstances, but there are many who find catharsis in some semblance of normalcy during these bizarre days. And football provides that normalcy.

Except as I said, there is a mostly unseen downside for college student-athletes playing football right now. As the parents of a player we’ve been aware that it would happen, but it hit home for my wife and me on Saturday night.

We happened to be driving up College Avenue through downtown State College. The football team must have returned home from their game at Michigan and a lone player was at the door of his apartment building getting his key card out to enter the building. The dorms on the right side of the street were all dark. Most of the apartments on the left side were dark as well. No stores were open. There were only one or two parked cars as far as the eye could see and not one other human. This was before 9 p.m. on a football Saturday in downtown State College. The scene was surreal.

Yet, this was a scene being re-enacted thousands of times at college campuses around the country as football and basketball players return to their otherwise deserted dorms and apartments when all the other students have been sent home because in-person classes are done. A situation exacerbated in small towns like State College where half of the population is students. And these student-athletes have already been living in an enforced bubble, but at least have had the physical presence of other students around. Now for the next few weeks or month for football – depending on their team’s success – and possibly many months for basketball, they will live in their bubble by themselves or with the few teammates with whom they are allowed to congregate. During what is thought of as one of the most joyous times of the year. 

Which is why, if you are a fan of college sports like I am, and enjoy watching these student-athletes compete, keep in mind the situation they are going through right now to be able to play the games you like watching. Yes, many may be on scholarship, but plenty aren’t. The life of a Division I student-athlete is demanding under normal circumstances, and these are significantly abnormal circumstances. So give those student-athletes all the support you can.