Wiedmer: Friday night was as close to our old normal as we've felt in months

Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Hixson football fans stand for the national anthem before Friday's home game against Brainerd, the season opener for both teams.


Remember what normal was like when it came to sports, especially football? Remember high school games on late summer and autumn Friday nights? College ball on Saturday? Pros on Sunday and Monday night?

We've missed normal in all things these past five months. We deeply crave its return. We may even desperately need it to hold tight to what's left of our sanity, even if normal has been nowhere to be found since mid-March, at least not the normal of old.

Yet there was something somewhat approaching normal on Friday night. There was high school football in Tennessee, even if you had to have your temperature taken to watch it in person. And supposedly keep your six feet of distance from all but family members. And wear a mask. ALWAYS wear a mask.

Still, players played and pads popped. Whistles blew. Touchdowns were scored. Potential touchdowns were stopped. All of which undoubtedly brought a much welcomed sense of normalcy to many of our lives.

And we can hope, we must hope, that such activities are allowed to continue, because if they are, we're presumably doing everything asked of us by all of our health officials and many of our political leaders. We're presumably putting others first. Not just our safety, but theirs. You know them - all those people whose lives could be lost or permanently altered if they contract COVID-19.

But Friday wasn't just good news for all those high school kids and their coaches who need to feel normal again on Friday nights.

It was also good news for so many of this nation's college athletes who reside under the NCAA's Division I umbrella. Everyone from the Power Five conference big boys, such as the University of Tennessee and its Southeastern Conference brethren, to the far less wealthy and powerful, such as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Thanks to the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors, all student-athletes who compete in fall sports have been granted an additional year of eligibility and an additional year to complete it through a blanket waiver.

Additionally - though many schools had already assured their athletes of this in the fall sports of cross country, football, soccer and volleyball - the NCAA also ruled schools can't require athletes to waive their legal rights concerning COVID-19 in order to play. Nor can schools cancel or reduce those scholarships if student-athletes opt out of their sport due to the coronavirus.

And while there are certainly some negative aspects to this for both athletic department budgets - who's going to pay for that extra scholarship year? - and for those recruits who expected this year's seniors to exit, there is also a stress-reducing aspect for those athletes fearful their final season of eligibility would be canceled because of the pandemic.

"We've definitely taken that aspect of this very seriously," UTC athletic director Mark Wharton said Friday regarding the mental stress this has placed on the Mocs. "We went to campus health to assign a mental health professional for our athletes. We've put that person in front of our athletes. We want them to know there's someone they can go to about all this."

Wharton has also sought counseling and advice from his peers.

"I've talked to more ADs this year than I have my whole career," he said. "It's been therapy for me. We're trying to have a crystal ball on this, and there isn't one. It's changing every day."

Despite the money he'll have to dig deep to find in order to cover another year of education for those fall athletes who want to return in 2021, Wharton believes the NCAA ruling could be a godsend for a Mocs football program that has yet to have a single spring practice under second-year head coach Rusty Wright.

"First, the NCAA ruling is a fair one," Wharton said. "These student-athletes have lost a season through no fault of their own. They deserve this. As for our football team, it's great for our program. We've got something like 24 seniors this year. We were positioned to be very good anyway. But this only helps. You win championships with old guys."

There hasn't been much good to find anywhere in recent weeks for the young or the old. The coronavirus has now snuffed out the lives of more than 175,000 Americans, infecting more than 5.5 million. Though the stock market continues to roll, unemployment is up, along with grocery prices.

At a time when the word "us" needs to mean all of us, together, the whole nation pulling as one, it has too often come to represent "us" versus "them" on everything from politics to the wearing of masks to whether to play sports.

All of us together, putting the weakest and most vulnerable of us above the rest of us, can beat COVID-19 and anything else that comes our way. Each of us putting our personal wants and desires above what's best for our neighbors can't defeat the coronavirus or much of anything else.

Yet on Friday night, normal, or something somewhat resembling it, felt good.

Can it last? Can we put others first, last and always? Will we?

Said Wharton on Friday afternoon regarding UTC: "We have no athletes isolated today. Testing is getting better. Hospitalizations are down in some places. So I think we're getting closer (to beating COVID-19). I try to look at every day as we're another day closer to ending this. I just want to get through it and survive."

To survive is what we all want. If we'll begin to embrace us as one rather than us versus them, we might even survive it well enough to trade in our new normal for the old normal.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.