All this week, USA TODAY Sports will examine the possibility of a fall without football, and what that would mean in a country where the sport is king.
Roger “Dolfan Maniac’’ Avila, a Miami Dolphins super fan, sounded agitated.
He’d just been asked about the prospect of football Armageddon – living through a fall without football due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“If that would happen, I would say then shut everything down,” Avila, 57, grumbled during an interview with USA TODAY Sports. “If the reason is they don’t want anybody to get COVID or spread it, then shut everything down. Shut the country down for about a month or two. Completely.
“You have certain things open and you can’t have football? It’s like a sucker punch. You don’t want to believe it. I have to find ways to keep going and stay positive and pray a lot because it’s just sad.”
Darron Smith, an instructor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Memphis, said he expects to see football fans – especially blue-collar, white men in their 40s – at the clinic where he works as an physician assistant in primary care and mental health.
“Since the pandemic, our clinic has seen a steady rise in 40-something-year-old white guys, and so have my mental health colleagues across the country,’’ Smith told USA TODAY Sports by email. “The absence of football for this crowd will further disrupt their sense of normalcy and ritualistic bonding with other males through tailgating activities, etc.
“Football season is a time for these fans to establish and reestablish social bonds with other men providing a space to release the stresses of life through the sports industrial complex in America.’’
To better understand the psychological impact the absence of football this fall would have on a country already fragile five months into the pandemic, USA TODAY Sports interviewed fans, researchers and sports media figures.
In short, things could turn ugly – but with potential benefits.
The agony of fans
Carolyn “BirdLady’’ Freeman, an Atlanta Falcons super fan, said she has started wearing a back brace and an ankle brace. She attributes her pain to the stress of the pandemic – and the possibility she will be unable to attend Falcons games for the first time in two decades.
“I’m crying,’’ said Freeman, 61. “I’m in my house, me and my dog, and we look at each other. I cry, she cries. I think it’s going to be a very dark and sad time.
“I think that people as a whole have been sort of holding on and hoping for sports and for things to start getting back to normal.’’
During the pandemic, Freeman said, she mostly has stayed home, where all but one room is decked out in the Falcons’ team colors — red, black, white and silver.
But occasionally, Freeman said, she drives around the neighborhood in her Mercedes emblazoned with “ATLANTA FALCONS” and “BIRD LADY” on the sides and encounters Falcons fans.
“They’re not thinking realistically,’’ she said. “When I say, ‘Look, we’re not going to have a season,’ they say, ‘Yes, we are. We’re going to be there. It’s going to be OK,’ and these are the people that aren’t wearing masks.’’
“But they say they’re down, they’re depressed.’’
John “Buck-I-Guy” Chubb, the Ohio State football super fan, grudgingly acknowledged the situation.
“I understand these are bad times,’’ said Chubb, 59. “You’ve got to have your PPE on. You’ve got to socially distance. I understand that. But then also, there’s got to be hope somewhere.
“I stand 100 percent knowing full well until they tell me I can’t go, I’m still dressed in red. I’ve got my outfit on right now. As I drive around the town of Columbus, just looking, just waiting to get back in the Shoe (Ohio State’s horseshoe-shaped football stadium).”
Chubb wavers between unbridled optimism and realism.
“It’s going to come down to limited fans and social distancing, no fans or no season. It’s one of three, and I understand that. Like Woody Hayes said, there’s three things that can happen when you pass the ball, two of them are bad.’’
Janel Carbajo, a long-time Kansas Chiefs fan who was inducted into the NFL’s Ford Hall of Fame for fans as a member of the class of 2020, said she might have it easier than others. After all, she’s relishing the Chiefs’ 31-20 victory over the San Francisco Feb. 2 in Super Bowl LIV.
But her mood turned sentimental when she imagined Sundays before Chiefs home games without attending a pregame church service across the street from Arrowhead Stadium, occasionally tailgating, settling into her second-row seat at the 7-yard line with her three grown children and throwing a football around after the game while waiting for the parking lot to clear out.
“So all of that is just going to have to take backseat for a year and maybe it’ll make us appreciate it more when we get to experience it again,’’ said Carbajo, 59. “Not that I didn’t appreciate it. It was just something that I took for granted.
Researchers predict as much. Well, most of them.
‘More authentic way to judge ourselves’
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that rats have turned aggressive during the pandemic, and human behavior has taken a turn for the worse, too, according to Susan Greendorfer, co-founder of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport.
“I think people are rebelling in various ways as it is,” she said.
Greendorfer then contemplated the prospect of no football this fall.
“I think with fewer and fewer outlets, with the sport of football in the fall being one, we might seen other kinds of ways that people are rebelling out of boredom,” she said. “And I guess not knowing what to do with their leisure time.”
Football fans will have to find something other than their beloved teams to use to Bask In Reflected Glory, or BIRG, according to Robert Cialdini. Cialdini, Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, introduced the concept of BIRG in 1976 when he published the findings of his research of college students behavior based on the performance of their school’s football teams.
“Our affiliated athletics teams provide us with a kind of sense of superiority that’s hard to find elsewhere, ” Cialdini said.
“From an evolutionary standpoint, when our warriors defeated those around us, it meant that because we had the same genetic makeup as those from our locale, we were actually better than our surrounding neighbors.”
It’s not as if a cheesehead in Green Bay shares the same genetic makeup of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But Cialdini said the concept still applies.
“There’s a problem with this kind of basking in reflected glory, and that is we are deriving success not from our own actions but from the actions of some other individuals,’’ he said. “And I don’t think that’s healthy to be thinking of our worth in terms of how other people have performed.
“So maybe we’ll be forced to derive our sense of self to a greater extent from our personal successes and failures, which would be a more authentic way to judge ourselves.’’
Rich Luker, a social psychologist and researcher, said America already is showing the ability to adapt without sports during the pandemic.
“One of the most gratifying things to me is the spontaneous neighborhood behavior that were seeing that never existed before,” said Luker, who said near his homes in Michigan and Florida he has seen people congregate in the early evening. “Typically you’ll see lawn chairs on the curbs and people having cocktails or whatever.
“Now who came up with that idea? All I know is that it spread all over the place and people are doing it often and still doing it. So there is a kind of resilience here that I will say comes more from the generation of today’s parents.”
The absence of football might also mean fewer heart attacks, based on research.
Robert A. Kloner, Professor of Medicine at the University of Southern California, said research he helped conduct of the Super Bowls in 1980 and 2008 showed death by cardiovascular events rose between 20 to 22 percent among local populations whose teams had lost intense games.
But Kloner, Chief science officer of Huntington Medical Research Institute in Pasadena, also pointed out that COVID-19 can affect the heart and, as a result, lead to death by cardiovascular events — with or without football being played.
‘It feels like it’s probable’
Few have their finger on the pulse of college football fans, especially those in the Deep South, more than the host of “The Paul Finebaum Show.”
“If a decision came out that (the season) were being postponed or canceled, I think there would be an immediate reaction of outrage,’’ Finebaum said. “And I think there would be a lot of blame game going on. I think once that settled down and the reality of it is not August or September and we don’t have college football, a pretty high level of depression will set in.
“We’ll adapt at some point. But I don’t think it will be easy, and I think that goes into one reason why everyone is being so deliberate. I’m talking about the people that are allegedly in charge. They’re being so deliberate and exhaustive of their explanations of why we are where we are.’’
Finebaum, whose ESPN radio show that also airs on the SEC Network Monday through Friday, said the importance of college football recently hit home again.
“We had a man call the other day who just went through brain surgery,’’ Finebaum said. “And he said to me, ‘I just can’t imagine not having college football. What keeps me going everyday is flipping on this program at 3 o’clock and hearing you and your callers and your guests talking about college football this season. It gets me through the treatments and the radiation and the chemotherapy. That’s what motivates me and makes me want to get to the next day, the dream of the college football season.’
“There are a lot of folks out there experiencing difficult times. College football is that important to them. And I can’t get that gentleman out of my mind, because the idea of coming out on one day and saying, ‘We welcome you to the program and the news today is not good. The college football season has been postponed.’ ”
The idea unsettles Gus Johnson, the lead college football announcer for Fox Sports.
“Most Saturdays it’s a pinch-myself moment,’’ he said. “I can’t believe that I’m there.’’
Psychic pain could fill up Saturdays and Sundays this fall if there’s no football.
“I mean, it’s almost like unthinkable,’’ Johnson said. “But it’s real. And I hate to say it, it feel like it’s probable.”