Steven M. Sipple: As Big Ten mulls re-vote, NU fans can be proud of program’s can-do spirit

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Nebraska vs. Purdue, 11.02.2019

Nebraska football coach Scott Frost looks on during second-half action against Purdue in November at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana.

I enjoyed a quiet outdoor lunch with a friend last Saturday.

It was quiet in Lincoln because Nebraska wasn’t playing football. It appears that could change soon. More on that in a second.

My wise friend told me something that will stick with me forever. He said human beings are driven by two leading forces: survival and the desire to avoid emotional pain. 

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Consider those forces in the context of this college football season. 

I don’t want to get overly dramatic here. That gets old. But it’s safe to say the folks who are against college athletes playing football are concerned about survival. They are concerned about the safety of student-athletes. They are concerned about student-athletes spreading COVID-19 into communities where folks with underlying conditions are especially threatened.

Then there’s the discussion about how many fans should be allowed in stadiums. 

In that regard, there was a bit of news in our neck of the woods Friday. One notable change in Lancaster County’s coronavirus restrictions is outdoor venues still will be limited to 75 percent of capacity, but the local health department is raising the maximum number of people allowed from 10,000 to 30,000. That indicates the University of Nebraska could have up to 30,000 fans at Memorial Stadium if and when it hosts a football game. 

I don’t think the timing of the change is coincidental. 

To wit: The Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors appears headed toward a new vote — perhaps as soon as Sunday — on whether to have a football season. According to multiple reports, the conference could begin play as soon as Oct. 17, thanks largely to the development of daily rapid testing for COVID-19. Rapid testing largely eliminates the inherent headaches of contact tracing. That’s the key.  

A green light to start the season Oct. 17 probably would assuage Nebraska officials, but only to a certain extent. Remember, the Huskers wanted to be playing in September. NU coach Scott Frost has maintained all along his players were safe because of the aggressive manner in which his program worked to set up guidelines and protocols designed to limit the virus’s threat. 

Plenty of Nebraskans are proud of the Husker football program’s approach the past five months. They should be proud. They see a certain spirit in it. It’s a can-do spirit. It’s a willingness to wrestle with the virus, not succumb to it out of fear. In a sense, Frost has survival in mind. He expresses concern about communities and businesses that are severely affected by quiet Saturdays. He expresses concern about folks who lose jobs — jobs that put food on the table for their families.

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He expresses concern about the emotional pain of fans, not to mention his players. 

You wonder what those players were thinking Saturday as multiple games were played around the country. It’s all sort of odd. Iowa State played Saturday. But Iowa couldn’t play. Notre Dame played Duke in South Bend, Indiana. But Purdue and Indiana couldn’t play.

Meanwhile, Kansas State took on Arkansas State in Manhattan, Kansas, just 135 miles south of Lincoln. It was wonderful to see dudes clearly having fun playing ball. Players smiled and celebrated big plays. You saw extraordinary effort. There was sunshine and smiling cheerleaders. It’s what most of us love.

I tweeted about it and just as my tweet posted, another appeared from a deputy sports editor at a Colorado newspaper. He’s been vocal about his concerns for the safety of players and others. He’s wondered aloud if games should be played. 

“Really having a hard time getting into this college football season,” he tweeted.

This pandemic has been clarifying in many ways. It’s taught me a lot about myself. It’s reinforced that I gravitate toward people of a certain spirit. I tend to gravitate toward those who want to wrestle with the virus in an aggressive manner, without being reckless. It absolutely can be done. It was being done in the Big 12 and ACC right before our eyes. I gravitate toward that sort of spirit as opposed to one based in fear of what might happen. 

Jonathan Holloway, the president of Rutgers, says he’s “really worried about what we’re heading toward.” He forecasts doom on campuses at the hands of COVID-19. 

I prefer leaders who do all they can to make sure extensive doom doesn’t occur, as opposed to ones who quickly throw up a white flag. 

Yes, I understand the threat of the virus. I’m sensitive about lost lives. Who isn’t? Yes, it’s about survival. But I’m also sensitive to lives being profoundly affected by layoffs, furloughs and the various forms of emotional pain that come with our lives being disrupted to such a large degree. 

In that regard, something else my good friend told me sticks with me. At the outset of the pandemic, he told me the trick for our nation’s leaders (locally, too) would be to “keep it between the ditches.” In other words, we would have to do our best to limit lives lost while also being mindful of keeping our nation from economic ruin. Aren’t the lives of people who lose jobs and can’t feed their family important, too? 

It’s been remarkably challenging. It zaps energy.

Which is why I deeply appreciate the eight Nebraska players who sued the Big Ten, a move that compelled the conference to reveal its 11-3 vote of university chancellors and presidents. Their spirit got results. They applied pressure on commissioner Kevin Warren. The league is feeling it from all sides at this point, and appears set to change course. 

It’s been an emotional few weeks for a lot of folks in Big Ten country. Matters of survival tend to be that way.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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