Almost seven months ago, the University made the decision to shut down because of COVID-19 and transition from in-person to remote instruction. Since then, questions about whether a fall sports season was possible have been hotly debated, but after months of preparation, planning and precautionary measures, college sports have returned.
In order to make this possible, many sacrifices had to be made — seasons have been shortened, socializing restrictions have been placed on athletes and games have been frequently postponed or canceled due to COVID-19 issues among the players and staff. Moreover, as dictated by Virginia Athletics, beyond friends and family of the student-athletes and coaching staff, fans are not permitted at sporting events, forcing even the most dedicated supporters to watch their teams play on a screen.
Fans are undoubtedly experiencing a sports season like never before, and it seems like everyone is reacting to it differently. For some fans, like first-year College student Quentin Benz, the unique gameday environment was what made college sports enjoyable and worth the commitment, making it difficult to find the same motivation without those experiences.
“In the past, students would crowd into Scott Stadium or into bars on The Corner to be with their friends and watch U.Va. play,” Benz said. “This year, my roommate and I found a bootlegged site on our computer and watched it in office chairs in our dorm room.”
According to Benz, the atmosphere around sports is something that sets Virginia apart from other schools, and the lack thereof this year has been hard to accept. For others, though, the pleasant surprise of having a season at all has made them go more out of their way to show their support.
“These last four or five months, we’ve had our individual routines — same thing, different day — but having sports back, having something to cheer about, having people just come together, it’s a nice thing to have,” Class of 2014 alumnus Tobe Okocha said.
Okocha moved to Los Angeles in 2015, but he still makes sure to support his alma mater at every opportunity. Okocha actually spent most of his undergraduate time prioritizing studying and didn’t become a superfan until after he graduated. He now realizes the importance of supporting your college team and wants to make up for the lost opportunities in his college years.
“To get the camaraderie and bond so far from the East Coast and especially from people that went to U.Va., one of my favorite things to do … is going out to watch games,” Okocha said.
Missing out on watching college sports does not just affect students and alumni, but also University faculty and staff, many who are also Virginia sports fans. This semester, neither professors nor their students have the ability to destress by coming together and watching their favorite Virginia sports teams compete.
“I was sad not to be able to go to the home cross-country meet or football game this fall,” Economics Prof. Lee Coppock said.
Regardless of how the pandemic has affected people or changed their attitude towards college sports, we are all living in a challenging time filled with uncertainty. Due to the impacts of COVID-19, students at the University have lost many of the opportunities to come together as a community — opportunities that many took for granted before the pandemic began. But the comeback of college sports allows us take back a sliver of those opportunities and make the most of them. Nonetheless, the road to obtaining these opportunities certainly came at a price.
Okocha appreciates the sacrifices that the players, coaches and other sports staff members are making in bringing back college sports. However, he and Coppock also believe that having young athletes perform for our entertainment is a lot to ask for, especially given the complications of playing a sport in a pandemic.
“Overall, I think we’ve asked too much of our college athletes and students in general,” Coppock said. “I feel like the most people are not appreciative enough of the sacrifices children and young adults are making during this time for a virus that isn’t dangerous to them by any standard definition of danger.”
Nevertheless, the fact that sports are able to be a part of this semester at all, in the midst of a global pandemic, is a major accomplishment for the University and NCAA. First-year College student Ben Lenox is excited and relieved, after months of doubt, that his biggest passion will be there to help him get through a tough first year of college.
“I’d say everyone is still just as passionate about U.Va. athletics as always, and we’ll be cheering as hard as always, [even] if only through the TV,” Lenox said. “There was no optimal way to make this happen, so the fact that they made it happen at all is a huge accomplishment.”
Others — such as Overton Ragland, longtime Virginia fan and fifth-year Commerce student — have ideas in mind to potentially improve on the current situation. He acknowledges that it is worth celebrating the existence of a fall season, but believes that there is value in allowing a limited number of fans at sporting events.
“It is tough to sit back when [Georgia], Clemson [and other schools] are allowing students into games,” Ragland said. “I would accept a lottery for football.”
Lenox agrees, stating that with Scott Stadium’s capacity of over 61,000, there should be a way to have a lottery system while maintaining social-distancing guidelines. On the more creative side, Coppock wants to first make the television viewing experience seem more normal by implementing artificial fan sounds.
“It’s not quite the same without the crowd noises,” Coppock said. “I think the athletic department should hire somebody from EA Sports [who develops the Madden NFL video games] to pump in crowd noises — they seem to have nailed it on the Madden games.”
At a period in time where nothing seems certain and everyone is apprehensive about the future, it is important to celebrate the small victories, such as the existence of any sort of fall sports season. While some fans are elated just knowing that games are taking place, others can’t help but notice that a crucial part of the college sports experience — fan attendance — is missing.
As the unique 2020 season progresses, it will be interesting to see how sports continue to have an impact on fans. Regardless of what happens, one thing is certain — this year’s season will be one that we look back on for many years to come.