Column: College football appears headed for cancellation amid the COVID-19 fallout. We messed up — but let this be our final wake-up call.

Imagine walking into a packed stadium with your friends and family. No masks. Standing shoulder to shoulder and cheering at the top of your lungs.

Frenzied fans’ faces are painted. Flags are waving. Beer is flowing.

Sounds glorious.

And it could have been us.

It’s what New Zealand rugby games look like.

After three months of its citizens adhering to a strict lockdown and following health guidelines from medical experts, the country went more than three weeks without a COVID-19 case while those who had it recovered. New Zealand is now more than 100 days past its last transmission.

The country is healthy. Restrictions were lifted. Sports resumed.

“It’s massive,” the country’s sports minister, Grant Robertson, said when competition resumed in June. “It’s a world first, and it’s a payoff for all the hard work of 5 million New Zealanders. Anyone who’s a fan of live sport or even live music knows that if you’re there, it’s totally different.”

More than 5 million Americans have contracted the coronavirus and more than 160,000 have died. Those numbers — those lives — should have been our greatest public health motivator to wear masks, socially distance and limit in-person gatherings as advised by medical experts.

It’s stunning that wasn’t enough. Nor were personal desires.

Months of being stripped of everyday joys has been painful for many of us — missing graduations and birthday parties, skipping weekly pickup games and book clubs, hugging our parents and grandparents. The loss of live sports also is poignant to many.

The seemingly imminent cancellation of college football should be our final wake-up call.

We messed up. Now, let’s get our act together.

That goes for fans, college administrators, the NCAA, local and national politicians and our president.

A March without Madness instead featured daily mind-boggling pandemic headlines after college basketball shut down at the start of its postseason.

Since then, university presidents and other college administrators have had five months to devise contingency plans for a fall sports season. It’s news to nobody that this decision would be scrutinized with thousands of athletes’ health and millions of dollars at stake.

Instead, these so-called leaders waited until the final seconds of the fourth quarter to start working on a game plan.

They dithered, wrung their hands, cowered from making a potentially unpopular decision and continued to kick the can rather than make an informed decision — any decision — even at the urging of athletes and parents.

And now we are at a more divisive point than ever.

Instead of banding together, we pulled apart. Many refused to take the best-known safety recommendations, potentially spreading the virus and purposefully spreading misinformation.

President Donald Trump, long known for criticizing athletes for speaking up about political and racial equity issues, on Monday tweeted a directive to “Play College Football!” as university leaders reportedly met to decide how to proceed.

In the meantime, athletes from more than 90 college football programs, including 13 Big Ten schools, have tested positive. Indiana freshman offensive lineman Brady Feeney’s mom detailed on social media his ordeal of struggling with the effects of COVID-19.

Myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, has been found in at least five Big Ten athletes and several athletes in other conferences, according to an report Monday.

Did schools inform their athletes of these cases as college students attempted to find a path to play? Did Alabama coach Nick Saban or Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh know about these cases even as they encouraged playing Monday while touting their programs’ relatively low case numbers without acknowledging the increased risks that come with traveling and contact in competition?

Several players have opted out of the season over their concerns about the spread of the virus, including at least 12 from the Big Ten. Yet many others expressed a strong desire to play this season.

Two players groups — College Athletes Unity and the #WeWantToPlay movement — came together Sunday night in a joint statement, calling for the overlords of college football to provide universally mandated health and testing measures throughout the NCAA, retention of eligibility for players who opt out and the right to form a players association.

They are trying to pull off a Hail Mary now because nobody gave them a playbook.

The sports void is a self-inflicted wound.

Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field are empty as MLB’s non-bubble model bans fan attendance and its season hangs on by a thread amid outbreaks. The Blackhawks are in the Stanley Cup playoffs in the NHL’s Western Conference bubble in Edmonton — but the lights are off at the United Center. The NBA and WNBA are playing in bubbles without fans too.

And now, the college football season is about to be gone.

Athletes want to play. Fans want to cheer.

The timeline for the next kickoff is up to us.

Will we learn our lesson this time?


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