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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / A Tyner Academy football player takes a break during practice last Monday, the first day TSSAA teams could hold full-contact practices in the 2020 preseason.

Time to end it, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football program.

Time to end this colossally stupid game of Russian roulette we football-addicted Southerners keep playing, and losing, against the coronavirus.

No football for the Southern Conference this fall.

No football for high schools in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and everywhere else where your words roll slowly and sweetly from your lips, as if bathed in molasses.

Puh-leeze.

In fact, no football for anyone anywhere save perhaps the Power Five conferences and the National Football League, and that's only because they can all put their athletes in a figurative bubble, much as the NBA has in its return to competition at Walt Disney World, in order to largely, hopefully, protect them from the coronavirus. (More on that in a minute.)

The same can't be said for the rest of us, however. Not anywhere. North. South. East. Or West. The nationwide death toll is now north of 162,000 and rising by more than 1,000 a day. We've passed 5 million total cases in the United States alone. We have seen the enemy, and it is as much us as it is COVID-19.

Yet here in the South, we can't seem to get that through our grits-lovin' heads. We've been as stubborn as kudzu regarding this pandemic almost from the beginning. Whether it's the wearing or not wearing of masks, social distancing, not partying in groups of 10 or more, we, as a region, just don't want to do it.

Yes, we've always been a bit defiant down here. We don't like being told what to do. Particularly when it comes to our beloved football.

But COVID-19 doesn't care where you're from. It targets the young and the old, the sick and the healthy, the Black, white, Hispanic and Asian.

As one health services executive said in late March of its effect on the elderly: "It's the perfect killing machine."

And possibly because of that, a lot of pretty wise, sensible folks throughout the rest of the country have recently abandoned their attempts to play fall sports in spite of the pandemic. That's especially true at UTC's level, where nine of the 13 Football Championship Subdivision leagues have already called it quits on fall football.

But a quick glance at the four conference that haven't — the Big South, Ohio Valley, Southland and UTC's Southern — tells you pretty much all you need to know about Southern priorities, however misplaced they are.

All four of those leagues are heavily, if not completely, filled with Southern universities. Now they're the last four standing in the FCS. Coincidence? No way.

This isn't to say no football should necessarily fill our television screens this fall, even if it would likely be wise to leave our stadiums empty.

At the Power Five level — the upper tier of the Football Bowl Subdivision's 10 conferences — they've basically been isolating athletes for years. Separate dorms. Separate dining halls. Separate practice facilities. Seen that Taj Mahal of a locker room LSU recently built? Why would any athlete want to leave that? And almost every Southeastern Conference school, as well as a good number of Big Ten, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference schools, have close to the same opulent facilities.

As the NBA has proven, if you can completely isolate the athletes, coaches and support personnel from everyone else all the time, you can probably play your sport, which means you can make enough television money to keep from going under.

As for every other college or high school program in the country, you can't. You can't isolate from the rest of the student body. At the high school level, it's even worse because you have to go home at night to siblings, parents and grandparents who certainly don't need to contract COVID-19. And while no one is talking about it much, a good number of football programs in the Chattanooga area already have multiple COVID-19 cases.

Even if you wanted to mirror the three-times-a-week testing the NCAA is mandating to play, you couldn't afford it. Estimates to run the tests as the NCAA wants them run would reportedly run as much as $500,000 for a season. Even if you cut that in half, or down to two-thirds, no public high school or FCS program could handle that bill.

Neither, too, could FBS programs in the second-tier Group of Five, such as those in the Mid-American Conference, which announced Saturday that its would be canceling its football season at least until the spring, along with its other fall sports, such as cross country, soccer and volleyball.

Another suggestion for Power Five football: Drop the pretense of academics for the coming fall term. If you play Power Five football, you officially get the semester off instead of often pretending you're a student-athlete. Your job is to keep your school's athletic program from going under financially. For the next five months, you're to isolate from everyone but your teammates and coaches, play on Saturday, and live the life of a monk. Nothing less.

A bonus: You get to help your fellow students slogging through online classes, as well as your fans, feel some sense of normalcy come Saturdays.

You may not be paid for such a sacrifice, but you'll get to keep playing the game you love, you won't be burdened with school, and you'll be doing something to help a lot of your fellow athletes get to continue to play when their sports return.

Does anybody like this? No. It stinks. For everybody.

But Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier summed it up this way to The Associated Press on Saturday: "I'm going to sleep a lot better knowing I didn't put someone else's kid or loved one in harm's way."

For no other reason than that, it is time to end any and all fall football that can't be played in a bubble.

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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