The journey is long and winding and there might not be much merit in retracing every step. In any other year, the phrase “peak crazy” might apply. In 2020, just call it Thursday.
But imagine your day if the job requires you to reach out the athletics director at the University of Alabama and ask — in a roundabout way but ask nonetheless — if student-athletes at the school are intentionally trying to expose themselves to COVID-19. Then, the follow-up question: has anyone affiliated with UA suggested that such an action might be a competitive advantage in the football season?
In fairness to Greg Byrne, who understood the reason for the questions and treated me like a journalist and not a model for a fall line of tinfoil headgear, here is the answer.
“We are doing as much as possible,” Byrne said. “We are testing aggressively. We are conducting contact tracing. The health and safety of our student-athletes has been and remains our first priority.”
The athletes are not on 24-hour lockdown and have freedom during their time away from voluntary activities but the University has had virtual speakers to discuss social distancing. The UA athletic department has also generated video presentations, not only for the athletes, but also for their parents.
Everything in that response is perfectly logical. So how did we get here?
It was a collision between the old (rumors have been around since Cain started them about Abel) and the new (modern technology would have allowed those rumors to spread from Eden to Fairbanks and back in 60 seconds.) As always, there is truth at the bottom of things. College students do like to party, and they don’t always act responsibly. That was true in 1980 and it’s true in 2020 and it was probably true at The Dark Ages Institute of Alchemy in 1324.
But then people start to hear things, and that nugget of truth collapses like a neutron star and the gravitational pull swallows speculation and information alike. One of Tuscaloosa’s City Council members says at a meeting that she has “heard” about COVID-19 parties. Meanwhile, a former NFL player, Boomer Esiason, throws out this fairly specific accusation.
“These guys can get sick now as opposed to getting sick during the college football season if, in fact, there is one,”he said on his radio show on WFAN in New York. “And I’m telling you right now I wouldn’t put it past any of those guys down there.I think it’s going on. I honestly … the numbers coming out of like Alabama, LSU and Clemson, all these teams? It’s too much of a coincidence. I don’t think it’s that crazy either.”
While Esiason isn’t sure if it’s “crazy,” it is more than mildly insulting. So are the headlines about “coronavirus parties,” especially when there isn’t any actual evidence other than “I heard it from…” But such stories, unresearched and uncorroborated, fly fast. Last week, it was that Tuscaloosa would lose $2 billion if there wasn’t football. It was a misstatement of sorts by Mayor Walt Maddox, who was discussing the total impact of the full University of Alabama system on the state economy. Common sense and a five-dollar calculator would indicate that the correct figure was about 10 percent of that, but someone ended up having to ask the mayor on social media about the correct figure.
In addition to Byrne’s comments, UA tried to address the “intentional coronavirus” stories with a statement on Thursday that said UA “has been unable to identify any students who may have participated in these types of activities.” Not many people outside Alabama will hear it.
Instead, we can only wait with trepidation for what the next round of questions will be, and whether there will be a college football season to ask about at all.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt