Alabama football's Running of the Gumps may be done for good because of COVID and NIL | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News
Fans race across the turf to get autographs during the University of Alabama fan day at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Sunday August 9, 2015.

You could call it Media Day, since it was a singular occasion when reporters got to see an entire Alabama football fall practice and talk to Nick Saban’s offensive and defensive coordinators for the only time until Alabama was in the postseason. 

You could call it Team Picture Day, since those were taken as well, part of Saban’s initiative to cram all possible distractions into one allotted practice day. You could call it Autograph Day or, once it obtained an official sponsor, Fan Day.

But it was the unofficial name that resonated, either with mocking rival fans or, for a fairly significant portion of the Alabama fan base, a sideways compliment to some of the most ardently loyal Crimson Tide fans of all.

The name that stuck? The Running of the Gumps – so called because of the sprint by fans across the field to be first in line for autographs when the gates were opened.

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We quite probably have seen them run, or even walk briskly, for the final time, even if no one realized it at the last Fan Day event in 2019. The Alabama athletic department has made no official announcement about a Fan Day in 2021, and may not make one.

It would be my speculation, maybe to a 99.9% certainty, that after the 2020 coronavirus-precaution cancellation, the event will not be revived this year and perhaps in the future. First, while the COVID-19 situation may not be as dire as it was last August, the state of Alabama has one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates – even though Saban has done public service announcements promoting vaccination. Without launching a debate that will descend inevitably into politics, the safest course would probably be not to risk exposure. Surely, things won’t be as urgent on that front in 2022, but there may be a new complication: name, image and likeness. 

Head football coach Nick Saban signs a painting during the University of Alabama football fan day at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala. on Saturday August 4, 2018.

Right now, the rules of NIL, which allow college athletes to be compensated in various ways, are about as clear as those of mud wrestling, and equally slippery. There is no single unified policy. That includes any concrete restrictions on what athletes can do in terms of autographing memorabilia or photographs or anything else.

Some college football players have signed exclusive deals. Others may very well barnstorm around the state (or, via outlets like eBay, around the world). But it is unlikely that players would want to compete against themselves, signing a cap for free one day and charging $25 to sign the same cap the next day.

With no clear guidelines, it is unlikely that a university would compel athletes to sign merchandise for free, although that’s just one of a million issues that may resolve themselves in a year or two. It’s worth remembering, though, that of all the NCAA legislation that brought the NIL controversy into the spotlight, the suspension of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel (for one half) was a catalyst. As part of his arrangement to be eligible in 2013, Manziel denied taking money at the time, although he has since estimated he made around $33,000 from signings.  

Even if there is some future version of Fan Day, we’ve likely seen the last of the long lines and certainly the running. After the first-come, first-served madness of grocery bags full of gear (and the occasional baby) to be signed that marked the early Saban years, things were toned down. Wary of liability risks like a cardiac arrest or a random trampling, Alabama had imposed some order on the process. No one wanted Tua Tagovailoa to be stormed like a castle in 2019.

The loss of the Running of the Gumps will cause a silent tear among the photographers, TV news videographers and, yes, the occasionally bemused sports writer who knew social media gold when he or she saw it. 

Were those Fan Days glory days, or a slightly uncomfortable embarrassment? Probably they were a little of both, but they are now a part of the past, their own legend whose time will not come again.

Reach Cecil Hurt at or via Twitter @cecilhurt 

Sports columnist Cecil Hurt.