For the second week in a row, BYU football will allow 6,000 fans — about 10% capacity — into LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday at 8:15 when the Cougars welcome Western Kentucky. Coach Kalani Sitake and his staff have avoided substantial criticism for their adaptations to the pandemic, with shots of BYU’s sideline usually showing them wearing masks. “I think we’d all rather have things back to normal,” Sitake said recently, “but we’ve been able to adjust and make it work the best we can.” BYU also implemented strict social distancing and mask requirements. But other programs haven’t been as consistent. 

Florida coach Dan Mullen infamously called for fans to “pack the Swamp” on Oct. 10 after a loss at Texas A&M, four days before a coronavirus outbreak sidelined his teamand himself. Observers also called out Texas A&M during the very same game on social media; sports radio host Jimmy Hyams tweeted a photo of packed-looking bleachers with the caption “Not sure about only 25% at Texas A&M and social distancing.” Associated Press columnist Paul Newberry proposed that college football is sending the wrong messages about the pandemic. 

“C’mon, college football,” he wrote, “you’ve got to do better.”

But how much better? What is a college football program’s responsibility, as an important social institution, to help slow the spread of COVID-19? Does it even have one?

Colleges generally play football to win; not to promote public health. This season, though, requires a fresh exploration of what programs can do to help make the pandemic better — or worse. 

Social influence on behavior

The biggest way college football programs can help, said Emory University epidemiologist Zach Binney, is through messaging. “A huge part of public health is clear, understandable, consistent communication, added Kathleen Bachynski, an assistant professor of public health at Muhlenberg College. And while that’s not the prerogative of college football programs, their community importance gives them immense influence, and thus potential as a public health messenger. How influential? To answer that requires a brief lesson in social psychology. 

In the early 1960s, Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura’s “social learning theory” proposed that people can learn through observation, imitation and modeling rather than exclusively through direct reward and punishment.

“There are many different versions, and many different studies that he did,” said Lisa Aspinwall, a professor of social and health psychology at the University of Utah, “but basically, it’s the idea that we learn from consequences.”

Specifically, by learning from the behaviors and consequences of others. Some sixty years later, Bandura’s social learning theory — along with other theories of social psychology — could hold answers to understanding how BYU and similarly situated college football programs can help and hurt public health. 

Social learning theory, for one, might propose that seeing Sitake wear a mask on the sideline, and seeing him get praised for it, would make observers more likely to model his behavior. Similarly, “social influence theory” proposes that people are likely to change their behavior based on what’s acceptable or desirable in their community. That’s often determined by people who have great social influence. Dr. Anthony Fauci, for example, would be an example of expert or “informational” social influence, since people might listen to him based on expertise. Athletes and football coaches, meanwhile, are examples of “normative” social influence. “We don’t think that those folks have degrees in epidemiology,” Aspinwall explained. “We think they’re cool.” And we want to be like them, so we do what they do/tell us to do. 

It might sound ridiculous to base our pandemic behaviors on football coaches, but a famous study proved the power of social influence. In the 1950s, Swarthmore University psychologist Solomon Asch conducted what are now known as the Asch conformity experiments. The basic premise was to have one participant in a room with (unbeknownst to the participant) a group of actors. The group was shown a picture of three lines labeled A, B, and C, and asked which line was the longest. One line (let’s say B) was clearly longer than the rest, but the actors all picked another line (let’s say C). After seeing their fellow group members choose the obviously wrong answer, the participant still went along with them and picked C 37% of the time. 

An important variation on Asch’s study, Aspinwall said, was having one of the actors pick the correct line. An important variation on Asch’s study, Aspinwall said, was having one of the actors pick the correct line.An important variation on Asch’s study, Aspinwall said, was having one of the actors pick the correct line.An important variation on Asch’s study, Aspinwall said, was having one of the actors pick the correct line; that lowered the level of conformity to 5%, which leads into one last psychological theory worth considering. Since mask-wearing and virus response have become politically polarized, they’ve taken on what Aspinwall called an “identity signaling component.” If a person is getting mixed messages — say, from a football coach they admire and a politician they support — their behavior will likely be determined by which identity matters more in a given situation. 

All of which is to say, many social factors can affect how people respond to a pandemic, but college football programs and coaches at least have the potential to be influential. “I think they have an incredibly powerful cultural role,” Bachynski said. “And taking proper precautions and mask-wearing from college football programs can send a really strong and positive message.”

The limits and drawbacks of messaging

Aside from modeling pandemic precautions, there’s another way college football programs can wield influence. Bachynski has seen her employer, Muhlenberg College, use it: Canceling the season, stopping play, and reminding fans that things are not normal. Meanwhile, her alma mater, the University of Michigan, has in some ways done the opposite. 

Washtenaw County, where the University of Michigan is located, issued a stay-in-place order for students through Nov. 3 with coronavirus cases in the area spiking. Michigan football players, however, are exempt, along with the school’s other athletes. The Wolverines will host Michigan State Saturday at 10 a.m. MT, thus sending a potentially mixed message to a community gripped by the pandemic.

The Big House won’t allow fans, which Binney considered positive. Having fans in attendance, he said, is a threat to public health that’s difficult to justify. As a society, he added, we have difficult choices to make about what activities we deem important and low-risk enough to jeopardize public health. Those decisions can carry-far reaching implications through messaging.

“Given where the numbers are in Utah, this is the wrong time to be gathering fans,” Bachynski said. “And I think there is a message that gets sent.”

BYU fans watch the game in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

She understands the temptation to get back to normal. But controlling the pandemic, she said, must come first. Stephen Alder, the leader of Utah’s Health and Economic Recovery Outreach Project and a professor at the University of Utah, agrees with her on this point. “If we do what’s good for health,” he said, “it’s good for our businesses.”

Yet Bachynski can’t help but feel the order is often reversed, with overwhelming effort expended to figure out how to open businesses and then figure out whether that’s really good for public health. Which is why she was proud of Muhlenberg football coach Nate Milne’s statement when his team’s season was canceled. “They all understand that if not playing football can save lives,” he said back in July, “that’s what they have to do.” Perhaps playing football doesn’t inherently endanger lives, but with its great messaging power, sending the wrong message about priorities can be a problem. 

“Right now, the unfortunate reality is the best role modeling that could happen where community transmission is really high,” Bachynski said, “would be to say it’s time to put the brakes on.”

Where does BYU — and other football programs — go from here?

BYU’s press release announcing the addition of fans noted that the decision was “in accordance with the state of Utah’s new health guidance levels.” Utah did indeed release new health guidance levels on Oct. 13, but they’re not terribly different — at least as far as BYU, Provo and Utah County are concerned. While Utah County was previously rated “orange,” the third-highest out of four possible designations, nothing prevented BYU from hosting fans, according to Utah Department of Health spokesperson Jenny Johnson. Utah County is now rated “high” — the highest of three possible designations — and on Friday, the state set a new record for single cases recorded in a day.

Which begs the question: Why, if Utah County is still rated high risk, with cases in the state still climbing, and with hospitals beginning discussions about rationing care, is now a better time to allow fans? 

“Part of our challenge right now is can we find ways to follow preventive behaviors,” Alder said, “yet still go do the things that bring value to our lives?”

Opinions vary based on levels of risk and spread. Binney doesn’t like taking the risk of having fans, but the question of whether to play the game at all, he acknowledged, is complicated. “You can’t legislate everybody’s behavior into the ground,” he said. “I really do believe that. So I’m not quite at the point of saying, ‘Don’t play because it might make people gather.’ People are going to do what they’re going to do. But I think we would be naive to say that college football does not contribute to that. 

“We have to say, ‘This is a risk to public health that is worth taking.’”

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Part of accepting that risk, he added, would be programs amping up their messaging. He’d like to see every school cutting public service announcements or leading local ad campaigns, thus maximizing college football’s benefits to public health. Alder agrees, though he believes playing football games, even with fans, is not dangerous if done correctly. 

“Even with cases spiking, if we do engage in the right preventative behaviors,” he said, “we can actually do things like watch events without contributing to the spread — but it’s only if we follow the guidelines.”

Others, Binney and Bachynski among them, aren’t so sure given the entropy of large groups. College football coaches can be helpful by modeling precautionary behavior, and programs can set an example for their communities by following guidelines, but there are limitations.

“It’s great to have any role model, be it a college football coach or any local celebrity,” Bachynski said. “But when community transmission is high — which, unfortunately, it is in Utah — and when positivity rates are also high, it’s not the right time for sports fans to be gathering. Even if role models are wearing masks and so forth.”

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