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Can 14 days of prohibition keep Alabama sports on track? l Hurt

Cecil Hurt

The announcement lacked the visual drama of Carrie A. Nation, the Prohibition warrior of the previous century, smashing bar tables and whiskey bottles with her dreaded hatchet. Instead, it was Walt Maddox at a podium Monday, announcing a two-week shutdown of Tuscaloosa bars.

The move is experimental — Maddox conceded that “no one knows” any certain formula for stopping the spread of COVID-19. Almost certainly, there was some image varnishing going on as well. Many college towns — South Bend, Chapel Hill, Auburn, Lawrence — have been given some media exposure for high numbers of COVID positives or unflattering photos in the genre of the old “MTV Spring Break” school. But if Tuscaloosa hasn’t been the most-covered site, the prime media example that has gone viral (that’s the other kind of “viral”), it certainly feels like it has.

The debate about that move has quickly turned political. There are two legitimate sides to the argument, which can be summarized as the health and safety community on the one hand and the needs of the Tuscaloosa economy on the other. Whether bar owners deserve any more blame for opening than UA does for bringing 30,000 of the bars’ best customers back to town is a fair question.

My interest in the press conference, which was held at the UA Manderson Boat House in Riverfront Park, was not to wade into the waters either literally (there’s a fish advisory in effect) or politically, but to connect the dots athletically. This did not prove to be a simple task.

My question to UA President Dr. Stuart Bell, who was present and did hold a Q&A, to his credit, involved the distinction between “student activities,” which are now banned due to rising COVID-19 numbers on campus, and athletic practices, which are exempt. His answer sidestepped the question like Jaylen Waddle dodging the first defender on a  punt return as he returned to his core theme of keeping students on campus for in-person instruction. “First and foremost for us is that we keep entirely focused on returning to campus,” he said. “What we are trying to do now with our general student body is to flatten that curve."

There is, of course, a straightforward and pragmatic answer to the question. Athletic practices are under strict supervision with medical staff available and easy access to on-site testing. Football practice is a far cry from four or five students sitting around their dorm room with a six-pack, or even a party at a frat house. Sensible people understand that distinction.

Whether Dr. Bell can give that direct answer isn’t so clear. There is a semantic tightrope over a deep ravine and Dr. Bell has to walk it, carefully. Any hint that football players are not also “students” will have ramifications in the NCAA quest to maintain the concept of “amateurism.” At this point, most fans are willing to postpone that battle and plow ahead through 2020. The “bubble” concept seems so appealing that some fans would just as soon that the football team go into isolation. The UA Administration does not want that, but has to be careful about how football players are defined. Words linger in litigation for a long time. 

Every day draws an SEC season closer but nothing is definite yet  At some point, inevitably will create a definite “yes” or “no.” A “yes” would be great news for Tuscaloosa but if it comes in the next two weeks, there won’t be any champagne corks popping in town.

Reach Cecil Hurt via Twitter @cecilhurt