Sports Column: The Return of Fans in the Stands

Author: Matt Cotner

Sports Column: The Return of Fans in the Stands

The views of this author are not necessarily the views of Scholastic Magazine.

 

“In these unprecedented times” are four words that Notre Dame Athletics will not be using this year. Those words fit last year, a year filled with virtual press conferences and stadiums far from full capacity. This year, the university will see its campus ablaze once again with the passions of its supporters, with the hope that that very passion won’t spread the coronavirus on campus and in the South Bend community. 

Fans that are not students or staff have had to wait 658 days for an opportunity to visit Notre Dame Stadium once again. It is the first time current sophomores at the university will have a normal gameday experience. While the new season offers hope and excitement, it still will take place during the rise of the delta variant of the coronavirus. Photos of packed stadiums on college football’s opening weekends have brought joy to some. However, it has also brought anxiety to others, who remain concerned about the prevalence of COVID-19 and see the crowded stadiums as a health and safety risk. 

How has Notre Dame approached this issue? First, the university has mandated vaccinations for students. In terms of the football team, Brian Kelly said in early August that the football team’s vaccination rate was at 95%. This was important, as an outbreak of cases caused numerous players to be unavailable for the South Florida game last season. It signaled a return to normal, one less thing to worry about in a season where the Irish already had so many changes on the field and on the sidelines. 

However, the university took a different stance regarding the fans outside of the Notre Dame community that will be in the stands this season. In a statement released on August 27, the university announced that it would not require attendees to be vaccinated. 

Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick stated, “We ask that our fans help us keep our community safe by being fully vaccinated prior to coming to Notre Dame Stadium and our area.” However, a vaccine or proof of a negative test will not be required to enter the game. The university does ask unvaccinated individuals to wear a mask at all times, and that all visitors, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask while indoors. 

Why, then, is there a difference between what the university requires of its students and what it requires of its fans? While the university does not provide a conclusive answer to this question, it may be useful to analyze the approaches that other universities are taking to further understand the issue. 

Tulane became the first FBS football program to require a vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours to attend a football game. Troy Dannen, the athletic director of Tulane, stated in a release that the mandate “serves as a strong reminder that in a pandemic there are expectations for all who want to participate in activities in which they share an environment with others.” 

Subsequently, other programs also adopted these policies. Most notably, LSU announced in late August that they would require proof of vaccination or a recent negative test result to attend a football game. LSU president William Tate said, “While we are aware of the diverse perspectives across the nation regarding masks and vaccinations, we must take all reasonable measures to protect our campus and community, not only on gamedays, but long after guests have left Tiger Stadium.” Other Power Five schools, such as Oregon and Oregon State, have adopted similar policies. 

Of course, an important question to ask is whether or not vaccine mandates are, in fact, effective at curbing coronavirus spread. One example in the affirmative is that of Lollapalooza, a large music festival in Chicago that was held from July 29-August 1. NBC Chicago reported that 385,000 people attended the event, where proof of vaccine or a negative test within 72 hours was required. In the 10 days following the event, only 203 attendees tested positive for COVID-19. That is a positivity rate of 0.05%. Additionally, vaccinated individuals were reportedly four times less likely than unvaccinated individuals to contract the virus. Therefore, evidence exists that vaccine mandates work in large, outdoor events similar to a football game.

Additionally, it is important to ponder the effect of an influx of people with unknown vaccination status on the South Bend community. On August 1, the seven-day average of cases in St. Joseph county was 24. A month later on September 1, that number was over four times as large, at 112. Even before this influx of people on gameday weekend, the area surrounding Notre Dame has undergone a large increase in cases. As of September 7, 49.7% of the county was fully vaccinated according to the Indiana State Department of Health. 

Notre Dame rightfully prides itself on having a nationwide fanbase. In this case, that may prove detrimental, as fans from all over the country will be clamoring to be on campus after being denied that excitement last year. Certainly, many fans will come from areas where COVID-19 is less prevalent. However, it is also likely that many fans will come from areas that are seeing spikes in virus cases. During their gameday weekend, visitors will likely frequent South Bend bars and restaurants. Notre Dame and the South Bend community are linked together, and the choices of Notre Dame undoubtedly affect its surrounding areas. 

How will the community’s numbers look after back-to-back home games in September, followed by a home game tripleheader in the colder months of late October to early November? Ideally, the vast majority of visitors will be vaccinated, and the case numbers on campus and in the county will not rise. However, due to the policy of not mandating vaccines, that outcome is not certain. 

In the Athletic Department statement, Swarbrick wrote, “With Notre Dame’s vaccination rates as high as they are, our campus is one of the most protected places in our country.” It is surprising, then, that the university would choose not to mandate the vaccine for fans, and thus seemingly jeopardize this protection the university has worked to build.