MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — They stand on the campus of West Virginia University as temples to sports which they house.
Yes, as they sit there today, they are merely structures … Milan Puskar Stadium, the Coliseum, Dick Dlesk Stadium, Mon County Ballpark, which is just off campus and a shared facility with the county that also hosts a minor league baseball team.
They are the crown jewels of what is a proud athletic department and symbols of what athletics at WVU is all about. They have sat silent and still through this COVID-19 pandemic that has put a muzzle — no, make that a mask — over the mouths that roar so when the stadiums sit filled with fans for a sporting event.
It is just three weeks now until football players are being allowed back on campus for voluntary practices with the idea of starting the season on time … a lofty goal considering the uncertainty of the situation, but a worthy goal in that if they can pull it off it will evaporate the pall that has set over the games of football and basketball and soccer and baseball.
And the plans now are to do so with fans in the stands, which is as important at players on the field to what the return of sports is trying to accomplish.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby this weekend was asked on Sirius XM’s Big 12 Radio about fans in the stands.
“That’s a great question,” he responded. “It really depends on how things go between now and then. I think it’s fair to ask the quesiton: If it’s safe for the kids to be on the field in close contact to one another, why wouldn’t it be safe for fans to be in the stands at a social distance?
“Now you take an 80,000-seat stadium, though, and you might end up with 20,000 people there.”
There’s talk — strong talk — of limiting the crowds at first, Ohio State suggesting it might allow only 20,000 to 50,000 into the 100,000 capacity stadium in Columbus … but everyone is aware that football is not football without fans.
No cheerleaders with no one to cheer, no band to play at halftime when no one is there to appreicate the work and effort they have put forth. You need no public address announcer … just officials, a sideline crew to work the chains and a cadre of TV people who would be producing a show that is no different than a studio drama save for the fact that there is no script as to how it will come out.
And they talk of safety being increased without fans in the stands, but what of those who will cram bars and house parties across the state?
As Thomas Magnum of the “Magnum, P.I.” days would say, “I know what you’re thinking.” You’re thinking you could always pump in a crowd soundtrack, at least to create the excitement that comes with football — or basketball if this drags that far into the fall and winter.
But if you lived through the days of “I Love Lucy” and that era of canned laughter on situation comedies you know how fraudulent that was and in your heart you know that wouldn’t work.
Having fans won’t be easy, even if you limit it to 50 percent capacity or whatever, for the virus can be anywhere … at your seat, at the concession stand, the men’s or lady’s room, on the railing you grasp as you climb stairs.
Bowlsby acknowledges that it adds a challenging problem to game-day workers.
“I think we’ll have fans in the stands,” Bowlsby said. “When you think about how difficult it is to do hospital-level disinfecting in a weight room or locker room or a training room, think about doing it for an entire stadium — the entry ways, the lines at the rest rooms, the lines at the concessions stands, sitting that far apart in the stands. It’s a very large undertaking.”
Make no doubt that the nation’s sports fans are bordering up demanding sports to be played, be it with or without crowds, for there is a national fascination with these games, one that sometimes is difficult to understand.
In 2006 the Society for Psychological Science published a study that reached some intriguing conclusions over why fans become so emotionally attached to sports and teams.
“People are tying up a lot of who they are in their identity as a fan of X-team,” said Edward Hirt, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University. “A huge part of who they are, where they derive a lot of their positive and negative affect, is from what their team is doing.”
In some ways this may seem crazy but it can be explained.
“It’s a voluntary activity where half of the people aren’t going to like the product when they’ve finished consuming it,” Wann said, an academic way of translating the age old adage “You win some, you lose some.”
“You wouldn’t go to a movie if you thought there was a 50/50 chance you won’t like it,” he added.
And, as much as movies are today, they don’t touch the price of tickets for most sporting events.
Sports differs from TV shows or movies in that there is always an strong element of the unexpected, of the upset or of the heroic late game effort that produces victory.
Who will win? Who will lose? Who will be the star? Who will be the goat? And you don’t often see movie fans second guessing the script writer, but a coach and his decisions on how to maniupulate the plot of a game is certainly nothing less than a hot dog ready to be grilled.
Sports fans aren’t there to watch the action, they become part of it, from the pregame tailgating ritual to the attire they wear to the game, to their cheers and jeers and to their long conversation after the game that carries all the way until they read about what they saw the next day in the paper or online.
Football without fans doesn’t get it, neither does basketball without fans and the other sports reach their highest level without fans.
Think of it this way. It’s hard to “Stripe the Stadium” or have “Gold Rush” if there’s no one there to pull it off, so let’s just do the right thing and play the games when it’s safe to include fans into the stadiums to add the excitement that the games scream out for.