Trading Blame and Worry, Notre Dame Grapples With Celebration’s Fallout

As soon as the final whistle blew, signaling that last-gasp laterals would not prevent the Notre Dame football team from its biggest win in a generation — a 47-40 double-overtime defeat of top-ranked Clemson on Saturday night — a can’t-look-away scene unfolded at Notre Dame Stadium.

Thousands of students leapt over brick walls, dashed past overwhelmed security guards and stormed the field, gleefully mobbing the Notre Dame players and one another. They reveled for more than 15 minutes, ignoring announcements to retreat.

In normal times, a scene like this is a rite of college football. But these are not normal times.

In this stripped-down pandemic football season, devoid of pageantry and sold-out stadiums, and with nearly 50 games postponed or canceled as universities struggle with the virus, the sight of thousands of mostly masked marauders creating a mosh pit at midfield was jarring enough that the NBC broadcaster Mike Tirico observed: “In the midst of the pandemic, there is pandemonium in South Bend.”

To which his analyst, Tony Dungy, laughed, adding, “And not quite social distancing.”

Saturday was a historic day, of course, not just for those who follow Notre Dame football, but also because the most rancorous and drawn-out presidential election of a lifetime was decided. The victory of Joseph R. Biden Jr. over President Trump brought forth its own impromptu celebrations in streets around the country — some more masked and socially distant than others.

Eight months into the pandemic, a central, unresolved question again emerged: How much risk should be tolerated for easing restrictions on large gatherings? And, as a corollary, for what benefit?

The risks of attending a march protesting police brutality, a motorcycle rally in South Dakota, a Hasidic funeral in Brooklyn or a Supreme Court judicial announcement at the White House carry different weight to different people. The same holds for college football.

The push by colleges to play football has been driven by billions of dollars in television revenue, but the top conferences have treated attendance differently. Some have reduced the number of paying fans; others have limited spectators to families and staff. Some enforce mask wearing and social distancing; others do not. Some allow tailgating; others keep their parking lots closed.

Notre Dame allowed 11,011 spectators on Saturday — about a seventh of the stadium’s capacity — and 75 percent of those attendees were students. The others were almost exclusively staff, faculty and family members of players on both teams.

“We took the position that if students could play the game, students should be allowed to be at the game,” Jack Swarbrick, the Notre Dame athletic director, said on Sunday. He said that position aligned with the university’s decision to bring its 12,700 students back to campus, which the Rev. John I. Jenkins, the university president, argued was a moral obligation.

The university has thus far administered nearly 70,000 tests for the coronavirus. But those tests, and other commonly used protocols, have hardly kept the virus at bay. Classrooms were briefly shut down early this semester after cases spiked. After a lull, they surged even higher this month — mirroring what is happening around the region and the country.

Cases in St. Joseph County in Indiana, where South Bend is, reached a high last week with a seven-day average of 63 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the county public health department. (The Harvard Global Health Institute suggests stay-at-home orders for communities with more than 25 cases per 100,000.) On Sunday, 267 new cases were reported by the county.

The football team, even with more rigorous testing than the student body, has not escaped the reach of the virus. Practice was shut down briefly in August, and a game was postponed in September after at least 18 players tested positive.

Still, university and public health officials were pleased with how the first four games proceeded, with extensive precautions, almost no fans from outside South Bend and relatively comfortable victories.

Notre Dame knew its game against Clemson might be different. It added 35 more police officers, 40 additional ushers and dozens more in event staff and private security guards. Swarbrick asked students to forgo a tradition at the final home game for seniors — throwing marshmallows at one another just before halftime.

And Brian Kelly, the Notre Dame coach, as a way to inspire his players, told them that the fans would storm the field if they won. (The university planned to allow seniors on the field after both teams exited for their locker rooms.)

After the team’s late comeback in the fourth quarter, students moved down and crowded close to the field as overtime began. As the energy in the stadium built, Swarbrick said a tactical decision was made to not have the security, which was meant to keep students from rushing the field, push back out of fear that students might be crushed.

Mark Fox, the county’s deputy health director, who since August has advised the university’s approach to the pandemic, watched students pour over the wall from a perch near the top of the stadium. He could not recall any public-address warnings until after they were on the field.

“I was sick to my stomach,” Fox said. “I felt really ineffective as a public health person. I felt like I was wringing my hands and asking the woulda, shoulda, coulda questions, and that’s an uncomfortable place to be.”

He added: “If you’re confident going in and anticipating a win, this should have been part of the anticipation package. We talked about how the messaging could have been better. Having riot police might have been the only thing we could have done to keep them off the field. In hindsight, is there anything that could have been or should have been done? Yeah, probably so.”

The Sunday morning quarterbacking from Jenkins was not directed inward.

In a letter to students on Sunday night, he called their “widespread disregard” of health protocols at many gatherings over the weekend “very disappointing.” (A spokesman said Jenkins was referring not to the football game — where nearly two-thirds of the student body was — but to other parties.) Jenkins announced that students would not be allowed to graduate or register for classes next semester if they failed to take upcoming virus tests scheduled to begin Thursday, or if they left South Bend before getting their results.

He also said that there would be “zero tolerance” for on-campus or off-campus gatherings that violated the school’s health and safety guidelines and that the hosts of such gatherings would face “severe sanctions.”

Jenkins urged students to emulate the football team and finish strong.

Credibility for Jenkins on campus, though, is thin. He apologized in August when he posed for photos with students returning to campus without wearing a mask. And he appeared without a mask at the White House reception for Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court — an event where dozens were infected. Jenkins tested positive for the virus afterward as well.

In an email on Monday to faculty and staff, Dan Lindley, associate director of the Notre Dame International Security Center, urged school leaders to lock down campus for the rest of the semester. Classes end on Thursday before final exams begin. His letter was in response to one Sunday night by the university’s provost and vice president saying the school would not shut down classes.

Lindley criticized Jenkins’s “finish strong” message, saying it was more likely “to finish with a disaster.” Lindley added that without a lockdown accompanying increased testing, the spread would only worsen and more students would head home for Thanksgiving carrying the virus.

“The numbers and this email from the Provost show that we are facing a disaster,” Lindley wrote. “Now act like it.”

Eileen Hunt Botting, a Notre Dame political science professor, said the university had lost its moral compass in recent weeks. She said that with cases surging, extensive restrictions and the recent death of two freshmen in a car accident, football was held out as a carrot to a reeling student body. That students rushed the field should have surprised no one.

“I find this so ethically troubling,” Hunt Botting said. “Notre Dame set the students up exactly for what they’re not supposed to do. Father Jenkins is clearly complicit in setting our students up for failure.”

How the virus might have spread on Saturday night will be unclear for days or weeks. Fox, the public health official, said it might be difficult to trace new cases to the crush of students. He was somewhat heartened that many wore masks as they poured onto the field.

“But a mask alone in that situation doesn’t offer a lot of protection,” he said. “I’ve got to assume there were 5,000 or 6,000 kids on the field, and even though there were some pretty remarkable efforts to limit the number of students who were positive, I’ve got to assume there are some. Because of the shouting and hugging and the close proximity, there will be other infections stemming from that.”

In the aftermath, Fox has considered all the resources that have gone into keeping Notre Dame players healthy, and how there seems to be little evidence thus far that players have transmitted the virus while playing a sport whose essence is antithetical to social distancing.

“Maybe that’s where the calculus is wrong,” he said.

Instead, as games become more meaningful and the virus shows signs of accelerating, the pertinent question in bars, dormitories, tailgating lots and stadiums may not be how to mitigate the risk from playing college football. It may be how to remove the risk from watching it.

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