College Football and Basketball Doesn’t Feel Real to Me this Year

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We’re a day away from this thing going haywire,” said Illiinois Fighting Illini head basketball coach Brad Underwood on media call yesterday. That’s life during COVID-19, when any game, anywhere can be cancelled at any time.

Underwood says he has been paying close attention to Ohio State football’s situation, one that is complicated and strange to say the least. Underwood also said the may do some same-day travel when it comes to Big Ten Conference games so as to try and avoid, as much as is possible, exposure to the coronavirus.

brad underwood

“That way, it’s watch film and go to bed,” he added,  noting that his team can’t leave their rooms, they must wipe down the room and wear masks wherever they go. Additionally, the Illini basketball team travels nurses with them who can administer antigen tests.

They’re saying and doing all the real things, and you can’t find fault in any of that, but at the same time it just all drives home all the major points that have me conflicted and ambivalent. What you think and feel regarding all this, is up to you, but you must have some, at least a little bit of cognitive dissonance, and a whole bunch of mixed feelings too.

If not, you’re as shallow and one-dimensional as a cartoon character. That’s the only thing I’ll say about how I think you should think and feel, because this is about my experiences, how I think and feel, and you are free to agree/disagree/whatever.

You can use whatever platforms are available to you, the comments section here, social media, your blog, your podcast etc. to express your take. But for me, it’s more a college basketball like substance than it is college basketball. It’s not really college football, it’s a college football like compound with some natural, real ingredients, but lots of synthetic chemicals and filler material.

For the first time in 16 years, #5 Illinois is in an all top 5 battle, when they meet #2 Baylor in Indianapolis at 9pm central (it’s a double header, so it will be more like 9:20ish, which means close to 10:30 EST, which means it’ll be about 1 am when it ends on the eastern seaboard).

I just can’t get too hyped for it, and Illinois is my alma mater. It’s the school where everyone in my family went, goes, will go etc. I’ve covered the Illini at press row for over a decade. But I’m just not that amped for this game. I hope they win, and I hope there are good stories to write about.

I’m happy we at least have this to watch on television, it’s something to do, but it’s just not the same.

I’m not in an at risk group, medically, but I do have an awful medical history. Given my personal history, plus the fact that we’ve seen the experts change positions a lot on the coronavirus, I’m not taking any chances. The experts have gotten a lot wrong about covid, because it’s a novel coronavirus, and I therefore I wouldn’t feel safe going out in the field and covering a game again until I am vaccinated.

I’m well aware that I might not be able to get one until April or May. Not being there takes much of the interest and excitement out of it for me. It’s completely normal and natural to find something less interesting and fun, when you used to be able to go, but now you can’t. Part of the appeal of movies, is “going to the movies” after all.

Even if I felt comfortable going, all media availabilities are over Zoom anyway.

So even if you’re at the venue, you get the same media access you get at home, so then why are you really going?

And yes, press conferences, by and large are boring, whether they are in real life or over Zoom. It was obviously that way before the pandemic.

However, the idea of taking forced, rehearsed platitudes and trying to pass them off as having meaning and substance was difficult enough before the plague came along. Now, almost all of us have more perspective, given the trying times we’re living through. How much Zoom do we really need in our lives?

While I’m glad we have sports on tv to watch (even more so now when we’re all stuck at home), I’m also aware it’s a very non-essential business, and we really shouldn’t have them at all; especially during the second wave. During a once-in-a-century plague, the AP rankings and W-L records don’t have the same gravity.

Over the weekend, my podcast partner and I, Travis Miller, recorded a Let’s Get Weird, Sports pod on the 2021 NCAA Tournament, which is supposed to take place entirely within the Indianapolis area.

purdue hoops

“That’s the hardest thing to project,” said Miller.

“Who knows what’s going to happen in the next three months? Because there are so many moving points and moving targets and what scientific developments there will be and what is the efficacy of the vaccine, and who will take it.”

“I’m operating under the assumption that there will be some kind of college basketball substance. I believe there will be a season of some type. I fully believe there will be a tournament of some type.”

He went on to say that we don’t know what’s going to happen three months from now, or even three weeks from now.

I agree and that’s what makes this all so difficult to get into. You can analyze, write up and preview a game that doesn’t even get played, so what was the point in that. In the time I started this piece, two more college football games have been dinged this weekend by the time I got down here.

Then you look at the polls and you see one team that’s played three games next to another who have played nine.

lucas oil stadium-colts

When you don’t have everyone on the same level playing field, in terms of something as basic as number of games played, well how can anyone take a season like that seriously? It’s a quasi-season, or a pseudo-season.

“The entire college football season to me is a wash, it’s almost a season that doesn’t count,” added Miller. “Because of the difference in games played and what not.”

“I think college basketball, in that regard, is going to be even stranger.”

Credit to Northwestern football, another program I cover regularly, as they have done a fine job in trying to manage the pandemic. However, their Big Ten title game berth would be better clinched with everyone getting to play, than it is by attrition. They’ve earned the Big Ten West title, but again, it’s a very abbreviated season.

ncaa-final-four-illini-basketball

Notre Dame, another team I cover regularly, is like NU in that they’re having a very special season. Illini basketball may end up in this same category, as many believe they are going to have a magical season in 20-21. It’s too bad I can’t be a part of it, because I easily could have been a part of it.

ND clinched their spot in the ACC title game on a Tuesday, without playing, because their one game that was COVIDed out earlier this season, rescheduled for a week from Saturday, is now off.

So all of this could have really fun and exciting, new, banner experiences might have been there to be had, but with it happening all in this season, the year of an * next to everything, it just doesn’t really feel the same. Sure, you can still do play-by-play Tweeting of games, and tweet quotes from press conferences, but that was dull, tedious and not having a ton of value.

But hey, that’s just me. Maybe you find those things worthwhile. If this still brings you more joy than it does me- that’s great and good for you.

Let’s just try to stay healthy and safe, get vaccinated as soon as you can, and try to get back to normal.

I’m in the Washington Naitonals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle category- “sports is a reward for having a functional society.” So let’s try to function again first, have some fun later.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports IllustratedChicago Tribune and SB NationFollow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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