As ESPN’s insultingly overserious ads for the College Football Playoff liked to remind us, this season was a massive undertaking that required a tremendous amount of effort and sacrifice from all involved. And all that work, all those positive cases, all that harried rescheduling and rule-bending, culminated with one game in Florida between Alabama and Ohio State. And after 60 minutes, all that sacrifice paid off with nothing less ordinary than an Alabama blowout victory. A season spun to us as “unforgettable” and “unlike any other” ended like so many normal ones before it, with a Nick Saban-coached Crimson Tide thoroughly outclassing their opponents en route to a national title with a 52-24 win.
For months, the NCAA and its most powerful members weathered an avalanche of setbacks and bad news that would make a more rational person wonder why anyone was playing these games at all. Bunches of match-ups were cancelled every week as teams constantly became overwhelmed by COVID-19 and scrambled to put together a coherent schedule. Standards were lowered and rules were broken so that bowl game contracts could be fulfilled or so conferences could still send the best they could offer to their championship games. More and more players reportedly became disillusioned by the sport’s corruption and exploitation of predominantly black students. COVID-19 vaccinations and testing were even paused at the Dolphins’ home field so the Tide and Buckeyes could play on Monday. And America’s death toll from the pandemic rose higher and higher all season, until its seven-day average topped 3,000 daily lost lives on the day before the title game—with who knows how many of those deaths coming from infections caused by crowds of thousands still gathering in stadiums.
All that bullshit, just to eventually watch DeVonta Smith perform an extremely compelling audition for the NFL. The Alabama wideout and Heisman winner needed just two quarters to steal the show before exiting due to a dislocated finger. His stat line, which is obscene enough for a two-half affair, becomes absolutely mind-blowing in just 30 minutes of play: 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns. Though Ohio State fans have an ace “What If?” to pull out of their sleeves because of a first-drive injury to running back Trey Sermon, who had picked up 589 total yards in his last two games alone, the sheer scale of the beating and the clear superiority of QB Mac Jones over Justin Fields on this night still doesn’t give the Buckeyes much of an argument.
This college football season should be remembered as nothing except a stupid, stubborn attempt by university and NCAA officials to ignore the reality of the virus and minimize their financial losses as much as possible. And yet, for as exceptionally messy and chaotic and destructive as it was, Alabama’s players almost certainly feel like it was worth it. And for many of the fans who tuned into games this year in diminished numbers, it was likely worth it, too. (I certainly wasn’t complaining about having something to watch while making hangover sloppy joes on New Year’s Day.) But when I think about how the U.S. really did just choose to almost completely ignore the deadly consequences of COVID-19 so a bunch of unpaid young men could travel all around the country to fill the pockets of a group of older, richer, whiter power players, even the greatness of DeVonta Smith can’t help but feel a bit besides the point.
By next fall, one hopes—though certainly wouldn’t guarantee—that sports will feel like they used to. In college football, that means there’ll be non-conference games that take place in September, and that stadiums like The Horseshoe and The Big House will be packing in over 100,000 every other weekend, and that we won’t need to be force-fed narratives about overcoming adversity just because a viral outbreak threatened to ruin some millionaire coach’s year. But it’d be difficult and wrong to forget how, for one season, almost every adornment that surrounds the sport and makes it special—from tailgating to huge student sections to elaborate marching-band entrances—was stripped away to reveal nothing but greed and danger and ignorance. And at the end of it all, Alabama still came out on top. Even—or maybe especially—in its purest, ugliest form, Nick Saban still dominates college football.