SALT LAKE CITY — Sure, it’s just a game, but isn’t it good to have football back again? Isn’t it a sign we are returning to normal.

Anything normal is good.

BYU played Navy Monday night, or possibly a junior college team masquerading as Navy. That’s pretty normal, other than an entire stadium of empty seats (not so normal, unless you’re UTEP). It was broadcast on national TV and when it appeared in our living rooms everyone sighed — we’re back. It was surreal — football in front of blue seats — but it was football. 

Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium is viewed before a college football game between Navy and BYU, Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, in Annapolis, Md. | Tommy Gilligan, Associated Press

This weekend high schools will be playing another full schedule of games, just as they have been for weeks. What could be better than Friday night lights? OK, the atmosphere is a little subdued — a limited number of spectators are allowed in the gate, and then they’re spaced out in the stands, as if someone passed gas. But it’s high school football and there’s nothing more American than that.

No one is social distancing on the football field — it being difficult to tackle a ball carrier otherwise (although Navy appeared to try it, giving BYU running backs and receivers the 6-foot distance that’s required in grocery stores; the results were predictable).

Maybe you aren’t a football fan (although why you would be here, I don’t know), but it’s a sign of a return to American Life, and even if you’re still nervous it might improve your state of mind and trick you out of your anxiety. There is research to suggest that the mere act of smiling — even if you’re not particularly happy and you have to force yourself — can trick your mind and make you happier. Maybe the return of football produces the same effect. 

Football matters. So do any of the major sporting events. It’s a sign that, you know, we’re OK.

In 1917, with World War I underway, President Woodrow Wilson wrote a letter to the New York Evening Post, urging the continuation of sports.

Why the 1918 pandemic serves as a cautionary tale for sports now

“I would be sincerely sorry to see the men and boys in our colleges and schools give up their athletic sports and I hope most sincerely that the normal courses of college sports will be continued so far as possible …  to afford a diversion to the American people in the days to come when we shall no doubt have our share of mental depression. …”

He took the same position in 1918 when Major League Baseball considered canceling the season due to the Spanish flu pandemic.

In 1942, months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, with World War II underway, Major League Baseball again considered canceling the season. President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded just as Wilson had. He wrote what has become known as the “Green Light Letter” to baseball commissioner Kenesaw Landis:

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”

Beyond COVID-19, college football could be much different

In 2020, President Donald Trump has repeatedly urged the return of sports. “We want to get sports back, we miss sports, we need sports in terms of the psyche of our country,” he said. “We really want to see it get back to normal.”

Any country that has time to play sports and attend sporting events, as well as concerts and movies and various cultural events, is a healthy country. America has embraced football like a warm blanket this fall — well, mostly the eastern half. BYU is the only college team west of Texas that’s playing college football at any level.

Meanwhile, the dithering Big Ten — which vowed not to “revisit” the subject after canceling the football season — appears ready to change its mind, thanks to heavy pressure from within and without. Parents, politicians, players and coaches are bearing down on the conference to play the game.

For the record, 33 states, including Utah, started their high school football seasons this fall as originally scheduled, according to MaxPreps (Michigan, located in the heart of Big Ten country, did its best Big Ten imitation, first announcing it would play football in the spring and then changing its mind and electing to play in the fall.

The playing of games is a small step in the right direction.