OPINION: Lafayette And Lehigh’s Rivalry Put On Hold, As Athletes And Fans Wait in Agonizing Limbo

Every school has something unique about them that makes them special. At Lehigh University in Bethlehem, and Lafayette College in Easton, that is “The Rivalry”, the two schools that have competed against each other more times than any two schools in college football at any level.

It is something that is important to many people – mostly alumni, but also to many of the people of Bethlehem and Easton, too, who are proud of their part in an event that spans a century and has endured and adapted through immense change, in both the game of football and the transformation of the Bethlehem and Easton areas.

It is something very important to me, too.

I’ve spent a good hunk of my life around “The Rivalry”, from the first Rivalry game I attended as Lehigh undergrad to the last meeting between these two bitter Rivals last year.

I’ve written a book about it, I’ve missed only one meeting between the schools since I was a freshman at Lehigh, and I’ve written about Lehigh football and the Rivalry for nearly two decades.

Never did I think I would have to write about the absence of a game between the two schools on the third weekend in November.

The COVID-19 has been an all-encompassing story that has dominated 2020. In the context of people dying, the terrible economic costs, and brave men and women helping treat victims and doing their best to keep the vulnerable safe, perhaps a college football rivalry between two schools in the Lehigh Valley might seem to pale in importance.

But surprisingly little time has been spent talking about the effects of the loss of a Rivalry football game had been been contested every season, bar one, since 1884.

Many people before have remarked about how college football, frequently, is a mirror held up to the society in which we live – its priorities, its communities, and the highs and lows of humans. In a world with COVID-19, this is more true than ever.

At the campuses at Lehigh and Lafayette, and the communities that surround them, there is a void in the third week in November, that most are trying to fill with virtual Rivalry activities and hope for a spring football season, making it not a cancelling of The Rivalry, but merely a delay to contest the game when it’s safer to have a more normal gameday experience.

Courtesy: Associated Press

Limbo

I think one area where that Lehigh and Lafayette football fans agree in 2020 is the agonizing limbo players and fans have been thrust into.

For all Patriot League sports fans, the pandemic started shortly after Boston University travelled to Hamilton, New York and upset Colgate to win the Patriot League’s men’s basketball championship.

It was one of the very last college basketball games contested before Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19, and dominoes started falling across college sports, starting with the shutdown of the college basketball world and the all-important NCAA Tournament.

The spring of COVID provided community lockdowns, suspended seasons, and in many cases schools closing down campuses completely, going to online-only learning.

For many months, Patriot League schools were in lockstep with the rest of the schools in the NCAA, or rather the NCAA was in lockstep with the path the Patriot League had chosen.

When it became evident that “in the warmer weather, COVID will disappear” was a desperate fantasy rather than a real pandemic mitigation strategy, the Patriot League decided to postpone fall sports competitions (with Army and Navy being an exception for football and any other sports they wished).

They made their decision pretty early in the process, shortly after the schools of the Ivy League had come to the same conclusion. At the time, it felt fairly inevitable that there would be no college football in 2020 as schools and conferences were cancelling and postponing seasons. It felt like all of college football was all eventually going to follow suit.

And in a way, the thought that the rest of college football would follow the Patriot League into quarantine made the gut-wrenching decision just a tiny bit better to swallow, because even though Lehigh and Lafayette were going through the pain of not playing in the fall, at least it was a communal effort taken with the rest of college football in a effort to combat the real enemy – COVID-19.

But that’s obviously not what happened.

Absent any serious leadership from the NCAA and their “leader” Mark Emmert, schools and conferences were basically told to fend for themselves as the pandemic continued to rage through the summer, and conferences and schools made different decisions as a result.

Some FCS and FBS programs decided to play in the fall, some FCS and FBS programs chose to opt out of the 2020 season entirely, and most of the rest of FCS, including the schools of the Patriot League, decided to try to postpone the season to a modified spring schedule.

The schools that chose to play in the fall made the decisions they wanted to make, but among fans of Lehigh, Lafayette, and hundreds of small and medium-sized football programs, including Division II, Division III and other football programs, that decision created a painful limbo.

Part of the decision by the schools to postpone or cancel their season was to have it be a part of a full-on national effort to fight the coronavirus. Sure, it was going to suck, and it was going to hurt, but the war against COVID-19 was the most important battle to be fought. For those who chose postponing to the spring, the hope of a modified season, with COVID-19 hopefully in its last throes, would still be a possibility.

Of course, that’s not what ended up happening. Instead, some schools decided they were for playing a fall 2020 season before they were against it.

Little ink has been spilled on how the schools who postponed their seasons had the rug pulled from under them by fall competition schools that didn’t have a real plan to contest full contact football games safely and frankly didn’t even really try.

These schools started trying to pretend that they would be able to create “quasi-athletics bubbles” around them, which of course was laughable. Even as football teams merely started practices, stories came out that schools and even some coaches started believing that teams could get “herd immunity” to COVID by contracting it on purpose.

On top of this, a testing program that has proven itself to be completely misunderstood and misused did little more than create an even more misplaced sense of security – or denial – among the programs that chose to ramp up to play games. The NCAA, as always, was no help, not even providing a hard set of testing guidelines in order to contest games. With a laughably loose set of guidelines, schools and conferences were allowed to basically invent what they thought was OK, so they did.

(This wasn’t just a problem with college athletics – schools across the country were not given any guidelines on how to reopen safely, either. The mantra “schools were allowed to invent what they thought was OK” also applied to reopening their schools for undergrads, with the sadly predictable COVID outbreaks that resulted from off-campus parties and ill-advised events.)

What ended up happening was typical college football – a combination of cardboard cutouts in the stands for some games, games without fans in others, games with limited, socially distanced fans in yet others, and a Notre Dame/Clemson game that featured Clemson’s starting quarterback sidelined from a positive COVID test, a double-overtime win for the home team, and a probable COVID superspreader event as more than 10,000 fans rushed the field.

The choice between a COVID-affected product on the field, -a soulless, fanless made-for-TV football in cavernous stadiums, and limited capacity games resulting in probable community superspreader events – is peak college football. Many schools who are playing games chose to stop or pare down all the community events and/or pomp and circumstance around the games in order to get the games in – which many people believe is the whole point of college football in the first place. (Is it really homecoming if there’s no pregame parades, no fans in the stands and no band performing?) Yet many schools made that choice knowing full well that it was going to not be the same experience or engine of school pride or community engagement that it would be normally.

This week – which would have been Lehigh/Lafayette week here in the Lehigh Valley – we see COVID outbreaks on multiple fall competition teams and no less than ten game cancellations, the most cancellations in a week since the fall schedule began. I can’t imagine what the families of the athletes are going through on those teams that are playing, not knowing whether their kid has a deadly disease that could have lifelong effects – nobody knows yet.

So it seems like Lehigh, Lafayette, and the vast majority of college football programs whose athletic directors and presidents chose not to play in the fall seemed to be making the safer choice. Though it sucks, and hurts, not to have a game this week, the schools have done everything they can to prevent team outbreaks from happening.

But it also hurts when the sacrifice that the Lehigh and Lafayette players were asked to make by administrators and school presidents was not asked to be made by everyone in college football.

Every Saturday, those kids, like me, get up and know that football games are being played, and on that Saturday, they’re not a part of it. It must be terrible to be asked to sit at home, and not play the game that you’ve been preparing and training to play your entire life – then channel surfing and seeing Penn State play Indiana.

You can debate as to whether any games should be played or not – but a moment should be spared thinking about the athletes who were asked to put on hold what they love to do, just to have other schools continue to play in spite of the clear risks of doing so.

In the entire process, nowhere has any thought, or any consideration, been made for these athletes -literally tens of thousands of them – on the sidelines in the fall of 2020, who have been robbed a normal season by COVID-19 and then kicked in the teeth by the NCAA, school presidents, and administrators at some schools who allowed and decided that getting money from TV contracts or something was more important that their health and safety of their own communities, the quality of play, and the health and safety of their own players.

Respect

College football and their fans are a peculiar bunch. About the only thing that truly unites them is the fact that they went to a college and they have an almost-irrational love of a sport that is so large, and so very rooted to the states and communities in which they reside.

Schools that choose to play football at all do so because they want to be part of that community fabric – on the local level, meaning that of the town and region, but also the national community fabric – that of college football itself.

Lehigh and Lafayette are no different.

November is supposed to be a thrilling time in college football, where people who follow Alabama, Auburn, Penn State, Michigan or other huge, big-money programs compete at the same time as some of the historic rivalries in sports.

Like Harvard/Yale, the Rivalry between Lehigh and Lafayette has been an historic constant that has survived wars, countless football rules changes, and the transformation of the sport into big business.

Lehigh and Lafayette fans understand their Rivalry is not ever going to displace the Iron Bowl or Ohio State/Michigan in hearts nationally – nor should it.

But they do ask is that they be their own, important part of that college football fabric, respected as Division I institutions, acknowledged by Lee Corso and the rest of College Football Gameday in November, part of the college football story at least once a year.

It’s what the players have sacrificed for, put their bodies through hell for, what they’ve worked hard their whole lives to play for – that time on the national stage where they embody that crazy sport that is college football.

At Lehigh and Lafayette, being a part of that history is a major reason why they go to these schools. The game in front of 16,000 fans, with the college football energy spilling from the stands onto the field, with the highlights of the game across the nation – that’s why athletes come here to compete, practicing in front of few fans in April and May, working hard with coaches for weeks on end.

If November is Championship Week for celebrating the big boys of college football, Lehigh and Lafayette don’t need hundreds of bottles of champagne to drink. But they do want a sip of champagne on the third week in November. They’ve earned that. The schools have earned it, too, managing to stage so many Rivalry games over the course of the last 100 years.

In the absence of the normal luncheons and pregame fun and games, Lehigh and Lafayette have taken their Rivalry to the online world and social media. They offer the chance to buy “virtual” seats to Rivalry 155.5 (because the 156th meeting between the two schools has been postponed), and have an array of online events for alumni to enjoy. It’s not the same as the pregame parties or lavish tailgates of years past, but it’s something to mark the historic time when college football’s most-played rivalry had to be rescheduled.

An FCS college football season is currently being planned for the spring. Though the Patriot League hasn’t made a formal announcement yet, executive director Jen Heppel was quoted as saying that the schedules were still being worked out and an announcement would be forthcoming in the upcoming weeks.

It would have been nice, though, if the Patriot League had made some sort of announcement weeks ago reaffirming their commitment to the spring football season, especially in Lafayette’s and Lehigh’s case. That’s because of the deep pride and the historic importance of that 156th meeting between the two schools on the field, whenever that takes place.

Nobody knows when Lehigh and Lafayette will contest a football game on the field again – whether fans or media will be allowed, whether there will be a vaccine available or not, whether community spread will be alleviated enough to have live events, bands, and the other trappings of what makes a college football game great and unique. The hope is it will be in the late spring.

The hope is, too, that by then the same respect for the players and the game will be present in the spring as well. The athletes deserve your respect, and I hope they get the game that they so richly deserve.

Until then, we enter the third weekend of November, and hope, for the first time since the Rivalry began, both Lafayette and Lehigh don’t suffer a loss on Rivalry Week.

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