You want a sobering visual?
As any self-respecting Hawkeye fan knows, Kinnick’s capacity is a shade under 70,000. As I write this article, 69,680 Americans have died from coronavirus. [ED. NOTE: And that number has only increased over the last few days, sadly.]
Coronavirus has brought life to a screeching halt for millions of Americans. Living in Washington state, my quarantine highlight is my daily Safeway run—mask included. As Sunday bleeds into Wednesday, I realize that I am wearing my grey sweatpants for the fourth day in a row (I guess my black sweatpants are reserved for dress-up). There is a numbing sameness to each day. And that is 120% okay—as long as we continue to flatten the curve.
While corona has upended American life, I am hopeful that, at some point, there will be a gradual return to normalcy. And normalcy, at least for me, means a return to the wondrous world of college sports. When college sports eventually return, I suspect they will feel different— more sedate, even sterile.
Before considering coronavirus’s impact on college sports, let me acknowledge one fundamental truth: A lot can change — and change quickly. Eight weeks ago, we were debating the Hawkeyes’ NCAA seed (sign me up for a six seed and a trip to Greensboro). Before college football is scheduled to resume this fall, perhaps global scientists are able to develop a vaccine (Dr. Fauci has expressed optimism about remdesivir) or we are able to mass produce and distribute coronavirus tests for every American. An equally plausible scenario: the semi-contained coronavirus continues its deadly march, rampaging through meatpacking plants and nursing homes at an alarming rate. And Iowa—with its older, rural population—continues to reel from the virus’s devastating impact.
As coronavirus ensnares my home state, it feels trite to obsess about Hawkeye football. I mean, there are more important things to worry about than Petras’s adjustment to QB1. But for myself (along with countless other Iowa graduates and fans), a Saturday at Kinnick is special: the wafting scent of “big ass” turkey legs, deafening I-O-W-A chants, and that delirious feeling when Iowa knocks off a(nother) top 10 opponent. For the Hawkeye faithful, Kinnick Saturdays are yearly highlights, something to look forward to when that boss assigns a TPS report on Friday afternoon.
Like most of society right now, college football remains in “hurry up and wait” mode. Tight-lipped NCAA and university spokesmen are noncommittal about the upcoming season. It could be delayed, shortened, or cancelled (the latter seems unlikely considering athletic departments’ overdependence on college football revenue). If, or when, college football resumes, university officials, politicians, and the NCAA will face legitimate public health questions.
Among the public health/logistical issues for Barta and company: Will face masks be mandatory for Kinnick admission? Are only, say, 10,000 fans allowed into Kinnick to comply with social distancing guidelines? Are all ticketed fans tested for corona upon entering Kinnick? Does the university quarantine “amateur” players to minimize their risk of contracting corona? What about limiting tailgating to minimize social contact? The questions are limitless, exhausting, and incredibly important. FWIW: until there is a mass produced vaccine, I am not setting foot in Kinnick—even if you guarantee that our Hawkeyes finally defeat those loathsome Badgers.
More than providing answers to these administrative questions (I’ll grudgingly defer to Barta and our sports industrial complex), there is a growing realization that college football’s “new normal” will be different. While we might watch Ihmir Smith-Marsette uncork another kickoff return (most likely against Nebraska’s hamboned special teams unit) or Brandon Smith make another gravity defying catch in Kinnick, college football will likely look, sound, and feel different. For us Kinnick creatures — those reared on rousing Hawkeye tailgates, "Back in Black"-soundtracked hype videos, and off-key "In Heaven There Is No Beer" renditions — a muted Kinnick will reinforce 2020’s jarring lesson: the coronavirus, not the Buckeyes or Badgers, is Iowa’s toughest opponent.