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“It's so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.” ― John Steinbeck, quote from The Winter of Our Discontent

Each year as summer days give way to weeks and months, we are heartened by the nearing of football season. But in the 2020 Covid-19 world every day led to more questions that led to answers of ever-escalating uncertainty. As we made the turn into August the time of reckoning arrived for this administration and others in the Big Ten.

Relying on the counsel of expertise from America’s leading research institutions, they had to make the call. Any decision one way or another was going to bring detractors.

So as the Big Ten postponed all fall sports, the braying jackasses of social media emerged to denounce cowardice and the “easy” decision. But it is easy to bray when your opinions don't have actual consequences.

Heavy is the burden for those who make decisions that impact the fate of others. The Big Ten’s decision was far from being one of convenience.

Like all of you, I carried hope to see football this fall. As a former coach with a still-active football heart and mind, the game has always had an out-sized importance in my life.

But a (socially-distanced) conversation on campus with a professor made me see this in a new light.

He asked “Would you let me bring 70 students from Iowa into my class room and pack 140 students into a classroom for a two and a half hour lecture? Would you let me send my students to another school and repeat that for ten weeks?”

“Hell no.” I responded.

“Then why would you let football do the same thing?”

He had a point. Our fall sports student-athletes competing against student-athletes from other campuses would potentially expose them to infections from elsewhere. And then our student-athletes could expose their fellow students to potential infections from other campuses.

That instructor’s question called out the responsibility to insure that we keep all students, faculty and staff safe. It will be hard enough to maintain the needed precautions here at Penn State, without adding risks from other schools that we can’t control.

Then came information about the potential cardiac health impacts to people infected with Covid-19. Across the country a number of football players have Myocarditis which has potentially long-lasting impacts.

There is significant risk here.

We’ve all seen the hashtags and demands to #LetThemPlay, even from the President. Players, coaches and fans admire players willing to battle through the risk of pain and injuries.

But across America these times call for our mind’s wisdom to take precedence over the heart’s emotion.

Years ago I faced this with a player who’d had a concussion. He’d passed the protocol but our team doctor advised us to hold him out of action for one more week. Our player was angry. He insisted that it should be his call. I admired his passion but this was too big.

“If this was an ankle or a shoulder injury we could live with that risk. They’re fixable.” I said. “This is your brain. You’ll need it the rest of your life and we won’t let you risk that.”

The issues, both known and unknown, with these players’ hearts are every bit as, if not more, vital for these players’ lives.

Some will argue that players understand the risks and still want to play so we should let them. But there is more at play here than there is even with concussions. Concussions or knee injuries are not contagious. They can’t catch a concussion going to class, nor can they spread concussions to their classmates, coaches or professors.

That professor’s lingering question reminds us that this decision impacts the entire University and community.

This is much bigger than football. Sometimes we must remind ourselves that football is here to serve the university and not the other way around. And this university has an obligation to everyone on our campuses, from students to faculty, staff to the people who work in dining halls, cleaning buildings and landscaping.

As the fall Saturdays come there will be a void for everyone in football, but so too for others. On Fridays and Sundays the field hockey and Soccer players will feel what the women’s volleyball players will feel on Friday and Saturday nights; the hunger to compete, the need for that adrenaline high when you line up across from a worthy opponent and measure yourself against the best.

Big Ten football fans will mourn the loss of Autumnal traditions that mark the passage of time before winter’s chilly winds and long nights descend on the Midwestern landscape. There will be no White Out at Penn State, the Big House will be vacant, no one will “dot the I” in the Shoe, no one will Jump Around at Camp Randall and in Iowa no one will be there to wave to the patients in the Children’s Hospital.

The great ghosts of Big Ten football past will look over the towering but empty spires of Big Ten Football Cathedrals and they too will know the loss. Those same ghosts know the soaring heart of victory but also the sting of loss.

They too will know that this is The Autumn of Our Discontent.

But in this Autumn of Our Discontent we must understand the sacrifices being made now are for the greater good, for our campuses and country. Sacrifices made now will echo for all time when we can reconvene in the Spring and on future autumn Saturdays to reignite the passions of our uniquely American football traditions.

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