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How to be a responsible football fan in a pandemic

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Cases in athletic departments get more attention, but your choices matter just as much for your community.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society Illustration.

On the day the Big Ten announced the return of its football season, city and county public officials in Madison, Wisconsin released a statement warning of the public health dangers of college football’s return. In it, they noted the Wisconsin football team already had 42 coronavirus cases between football players and staff, and that the surrounding community was dealing with significant outbreaks.

Since then, the situation in Wisconsin has continued to worsen, bordering on dire now. The Badgers played their first game last Friday in Madison before almost immediately having to suspend team activities and cancel at least one game because of an outbreak.

The Wisconsin football team is part of the University of Wisconsin community, which is part of the broader city of Madison and Dane County community. Even fans, wherever they may be, are a part of the community around the football team. The decisions made by that team affect the communities that surround it. The relationship also goes the other way in this case: the literal health of the communities Wisconsin’s football team exists in impacts its ability to continue to play. It gets much harder to play sports, and contain a pandemic spread, when the situation at home is poor.

This isn’t an I-told-you-so, as much of the conversation around coronavirus in sports has become, though. The points about the football team itself were a very small part of the statement, and the larger point is one that applies everywhere, and is incredibly important as we head further into fall and winter. It’s one you should pay attention to.

“While we all love our football Saturdays, the festivities that come with them are going to serve as new spreading events within our community. We have a lot of sick UW students right now - 88% of those who have tested positive are reporting symptoms - and this is before the weather gets colder and flu season arrives.”

Because so many people gather to celebrate and watch Badger games, it is likely that a Badger football season would spread COVID-19 to not only UW-Madison students, but also to people from all over Dane County.

NFL and college football being in full swing, combined with colder weather keeping large portions of the country indoors, creates a dangerous mix of ingredients for coronavirus spread. Because of how the disease spreads through the air, where aerosols will linger in enclosed spaces, and because of how those aerosols are created — through talking, but especially through yelling, singing, and cheering — there’s a real danger not just in watching games in a large crowd, but especially in watching them together in a living room.

Football, mostly because of the rhythms and timing of the schedule, is a sport that’s meant to bring people together. Games are weekly, spread out over three or four months, and with stakes high enough that create a situation where you want to watch together, with family, friends, and rivals. It’s not like MLB, NBA or NHL.

Whether it’s in stadiums or at bars, restaurants, or friends’ houses, one game a week (usually on a weekend) makes a football game an easy way to gather and do something together. And while the stadiums with or without fans get the headlines, the thing that will affect you is how you gather to watch games each week — a usually normal, habitual thing a lot of us do.

Sports and competition as a whole also make us do dumb things, ignoring the warning in our brains saying “this might be risky” and, say, partying on a field after testing positive for coronavirus. But this also applies to evaluating risk when it comes to friends and family, and being able to do so in a clear and uncomplicated way. You’re most comfortable in routines and with the people you care most about, and that’s true for the ways we watch games together too.

Football also probably isn’t going to stop, or even slow down. There’s too much money involved and too much invested in getting a season to some kind of conclusion. Besides, nobody is really in charge, and figuring this all out is up to individuals as leadership shrugs while bending to whoever is the loudest at any given moment.

None of this is meant to scold people for watching sports, or even watching sports together in some way. I get it. But that doesn’t mean you should be going to watch parties or hanging out with friends in the same ways as before. Some simple steps, and some temporary inconveniences now, will help keep everyone around for next season and beyond.

  • Find new ways to watch with other people. Zoom! Phones on speaker so you can scream at each other! Make your stressed and angry fan friend start an onlyfans so people can watch them melt down and you can make some gameday money.
  • Stay home if you’re sick or have come into contact with someone who is. And please don’t go partying after a positive test.
  • Wear a mask (everywhere, but indoors and especially around others).
  • Watch outside. This is an endurance sport for northerners but I believe in you and your ability to create furniture out of snow and heat out of ingenious sources (like beer).
  • Watch in a place with open air circulation or lots of ventilation.
  • Maybe just skip the bars this year

We all like watching games with each other, and it’s part of what makes fall somewhat bearable. In a year like this, it’s one of the only chances left at normalcy. That sense of normalcy comes with legitimate risk right now, and could come with significant long-term costs to yourself, your community, and beyond. Ask yourself if those four hours of Texas football are really worth feeling bad for weeks.*

*physically bad, not just the normal “why do I keep watching this?” bad

If gatherings lead to people getting sick, it will disrupt lives for days, weeks, or even longer at a time. On a personal level, that means fighting off a nasty illness that comes with a risk of death. On a community level, that can mean friends or family getting sick, spread getting out of control where you live, and untold future physical, mental, and economic impacts in the worst cases. If you live in a place where a team is trying to play sports, outbreaks in the community make it more likely for there to be outbreaks within teams, for athletes and others to get sick sick, and for activities to be suspended.

On a very basic level, though, I want you, and your friends, to all be able to watch games together next fall, and the fall after that, and for everyone to be healthy now and in the long term. I want those friends to have all their family members around and healthy next year and beyond, too. Decisions we make now, as the coronavirus situation worsens across the country and flu season makes its return, will have a significant impact on our own lives, the lives of those we love, and the community around us.

Do your part to take care of each other and protect each other this fall. We all want you, and your families and friends, around and healthy. The immediate inconveniences and awkwardness will be worth it in the long run.