In an alternate timeline, a time known as BC (“Before COVID-19”), we would be one week into the preseason, the Texans finished with their glorified scrimmage against the Vikings and on to the second round of diet football against the Seahawks. We might discuss what we saw out of the second/third/fourth stringers, continue to pray for good health for the starters/curse any practice injuries, sing praises that we have football for the first time in seven months, and just as quickly curse the purpose/existence of preseason football. Ah, the memories.
In the current timeline, as the NFL attempts to navigate the new COVID-19 world, we will be deprived of preseason football. Whether that is a major loss or not depends on your professional and financial stake in such matters. For the common fan, you hate to miss the football, but the games don’t have a lot of meaning. The end-state is the start of the regular season, which the NFL still expects to happen. Albeit with a significantly reduced fan presence and health/security protocols that give many the appearance of entering a secret Bond villain lair.
However, while the NFL is king where football is concerned, it is not the only football game in town. In the BC era, this point in the calendar sees the older, “amateur” version—college football—start to gear up as players and fan bases condition themselves for kickoff of the new season. Additionally, summer also brings that foreign cousin of American football, the Canadian Football League. While the NFL is toiling in its preseason, the Canadians are well into their regular season. Even in other parts of the globe, American football leagues provide an international audience the chance to see some semblance of the real “American” game.
The above scenarios apply to that BC timeline. Unfortunately, COVID-19 could not leave well enough alone with the traditions of late summer. At the time of this writing, the NCAA has cancelled all fall sports at all levels, save FBS (and some FCS) college football. Football drives the all-mighty NCAA money machine, but the FBS is far from a united front. Several of the lower tier “Group of Five” programs called “knock it off” for 2020. Two of the Power 5 programs joined them (Big 10, Pac-10), offering the bromide of “spring football”. The other three Power 5 conferences still have plans to play, but whether they take the field and get any semblance of a full season is very much a T-B-D.
Only two other times since the first college football game 151 years ago has the sport seen this type of disruption: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 and deep in the middle of US involvement in World War II (1943). Granted, there were far fewer major programs back then, and in 1918, many schools at least got the chance to play some of their games. The last time the U.S. faced a fall without college football of any sort forces us to look back to 1868, when the nation, fresh off the impeachment and by-the-narrowest-of-margins acquittal of President Andrew Johnson, could only turn to the next presidential election and the expected ascension of one Ulysses S. Grant for full-contact entertainment (at least in the press). Perhaps some college football games will be played this season. Arguably the most powerful of the Power 5 (the SEC) will pull out all the stops to make sure it can play some football, but even that is not a given.
In light of the uncertainty of college football, people might look to that goofy yet entertaining international version, the good ol’ CFL. Canada’s COVID-19 numbers remain far below America’s, and they have sports already in session (the NHL playoffs). Yet COVID-19 will not be denied. Due to the economic impacts of the virus, the CFL, already down to nine teams, found itself in dire financial straits. The lost revenues from COVID-19 put a serious hurt on CFL finances. This left the league struggling to meet financial obligations. To that end, they asked the government for a $30M (Canadian dollars a/k/a loonies) interest-free loan to make expenses meet to get a season going. The Canadian government said…no. Looking at a brutal shortfall, the CFL punted on 2020, looking to resume its form of football in 2021.
As for the international leagues, well, they are playing for-real American football. Yes, playing honest-to-goodness games that count in standings. No, they don’t have the TV exposure of the CFL, to say nothing of the behemoth TV contracts for NCAA football and the King of All Television, the NFL. Still, if you have the proper bandwidth and your anti-malware software is up to date, you can live-stream American football in Europe. It at least qualifies as football.
However, for football-starved fans, the options are limited. Perhaps the Big 12, ACC and SEC can generate some sort of season, along with a few other bold/financially desperate FBS schools. If COVID-19 allows it, and the thousands of NFL players/coaches/medical staffs/team personnel can all rigorously and religiously follow medical protocols/social distancing/incredible self-discipline to check raging hormones/cabin fever/temptations, it might just work…maybe.
Worst-case, the Madden 21 game might break all records for video-game sales, especially if the season cannot start or conclude as scheduled.
Until then, while there are isolated pockets of (American) football out there to be played and possibly watched, it looks like it could very well be NFL or bust for fans this fall. Will it happen? Or will COVID-19 wreck the day? As we sit here in mid-August, what say you, the football-hungry masses?