Musings on a strange season

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It was difficult to watch Cal’s loss to UCLA and simply focus on the football.

The Bears were trounced 34-10 in a last-minute game against the Bruins. Just 48 hours earlier, Cal had been expecting a tussle with Arizona State in Tempe, and UCLA had been preparing for a visit from Utah. COVID-19 outbreaks among the Sun Devils and Utes cast those games first into doubt and then into cancellation, and in the rubble, a Sunday matchup between two UCs at the Rose Bowl was born.

Such a description still fails to capture the challenges faced by this game. A positive COVID-19 test among the Bears’ defensive linemen forced that entire unit into quarantine for more than a week, limiting practice and preparation for the entire team.

It was hard to look at images of the Rose Bowl on a sunny fall morning and just think of kickoff. How can one look at two sidelines full of student-athletes and coaches and only evaluate their performance on the field that separates them? This 2020 season has already been defined by so much more than football as programs — Cal included — struggle against the coronavirus pandemic. At least players were able to be on that field, to be safe and healthy and alive.

It’s frighteningly easy to forget that, to let that fade into the background while we extort athletes across the nation to catch that ball or make that play in whatever sport they play. At least they have the opportunity to catch that ball or are on the field to make that play.

I forget this, too. It’s so easy to slip into a mindset where you analyze what is in front of you rather than everything that has happened to reach that point, to only see players’ on-field production and not the hours of practice, COVID-19 tests and quarantine they have endured.

But if this season is so defined, so constrained and restricted by the novel coronavirus, it also begs another question. Why are we playing college football? It’s a query that opens a Pandora’s box of potentiality and consideration, of conflict between desire and necessity and a combination of the two.

At some point, we must look in the mirror and ask ourselves what our priorities are if we’re playing football now. What we see is not only a reflection of Cal or California or the Pac-12 but of our nation. After all, these aren’t professional sports, these are collegiate sports.

What does it say when we bring football back to campuses before we bring classes back to campuses? What does it say when we dedicate resources to sports that could potentially aid marginalized groups across the country? What does it say when I dedicate my time, effort and attention to covering football when there are other, more pressing stories out there? There is a pandemic and the United States is playing football. There are few statements more poetic or emblematic of this country.

There comes a time when sacrifices must be made, precedents must be broken and priorities reified with actions. It would have been monumental for the Pac-12 and conferences around the country to put sports down. To set the field and the court aside and put their resources and knowledge toward communities both on and off campus; universities and conferences could have dedicated money and testing for vulnerable student populations and creating in-person opportunities for those who may desperately need them.

It would have been what it is now — unimaginable, controversial, even kind of upsetting to some. To set aside a competition that brings so much value, profit and happiness for something completely unprecedented? But to sacrifice something to help people during these trying times? It would have been heroic.

This is not a simple if or but. The choice to play football and sports is not one made by any individual — the choice is a product of a system. Players, coaches, administrators, conference leaders, reporters, writers, fans — this season is happening because we all, in our own way, have agreed to it. I am responsible just like every player in the nation.

This is by no means something to consider only in the context of Cal and its players. There is no single person or entity responsible. Players and coaches want to play and coach because it is akin to living and breathing for them. It is what they love — who can fault them for that passion? Many are suffering and sports can so easily give us that which we desire — hope.

There is another facet to this moment. There are surely football players who need the field to keep them sane in their own way, to give them love and joy. There are certainly football players who would be facing material struggles, who are members of marginalized groups that need resources and are benefitting from those that have been given to them.

There is the unquantifiable joy dispensed by sports. Perhaps we do need something to celebrate together. In a time when common and shared experiences are so rare, sports that we play or watch are a gift. There is value in that, as obtuse as it may seem. They give and take away happiness and dejection, celebration and pain, but they are never lonely.

There is nothing certain in sports except how we experience them — together.

Cal will probably play Oregon State this weekend, and whether you see that as something we don’t need or something we cannot live without, it is undeniable that we cannot look at the game and only the game. Now, of all times, the field is smaller than ever, and we must strive to look beyond it.

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football and is the deputy special issues editor. Contact him at [email protected].