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While the Big 10 revs up in the bullpen, Notre Dame is the only big league college football operation at work in the neighborhood.
Whatever happens in South Bend is an object of interest even in normal times, but these days you can see patterns developing about what rules they'll apply to their games. Notre Dame has sent unambiguous signals to the Big 10 about how to navigate the pandemic.
One of the big rules in display last weekend was deception and secrecy as a perhaps natural result of shutting down external observations.
You will never know if half the Irish players have active COVID-19 infections until just before game time. That process essentially describes what happened Saturday during Notre Dame's 52-0 bug-squashing of South Florida when eight players listed on the two-deep chart did not play, but would have without COVID. They all were called "unavailable" in the pre-game roster. "Unavailable" is the new code word for "pandemic."
It was a strange game in which the Irish found out nothing of significance about itself because the opposition was too weak. ND did discover that its fourth-stringers were lots better than South Florida's starters. That won't matter much the rest of the season.
Example? The celebratory game ball went to sophomore linebacker Jack Kiser, who had eight tackles as a starter though he was a scout teamer on Monday.
Even South Bend Tribune beat writer Eric Hansen, the one consistently reliable source on Irish issues, offered a vague description of Coach Brian Kelly's explanation for the reality blackout. Hansen either did not know what was occurring, or knew and decided to keep it secret, too.
Hansen wrote that Kelly "meandered around the question, (and) there was a bit of decoding involved in ascertaining that his Notre Dame football team's first serious COVID-19 ordeal came this week in waves." Kelly implied to Hansen that he did not know until two hours before the 1:30 kickoff who would be benched.
Does that timeline seem plausible?
Was this COVID wave a bad break and just one of those odd, one-of-a-kind random things, or could it be the first pandemic onslaught that might wreck a season?
The answer had no effect except puzzlement this week because South Florida was too untalented to make any difference and suffered its worst loss ever. But what if Notre Dame loses half of its starters before playing Clemson or Boston College on the road? Or what if quarterback Ian Book and the entire backfield comes down with the virus three days before the North Carolina road game?
For that matter, who will play this Saturday at Wake Forest, and who is ruled out by quarantine? Shush. It's a secret.
Because outside access to Notre Dame athletics - and the campus itself - is locked down and tightly regulated, nobody could ask that question. Shouldn't someone ask if lives are being placed jeopardy?
Deception on that issue might be school policy, but it does not signal trustworthiness.
A seeming multitude of media outlets - commercial, public and fan-oriented - keep the Irish in a comfortable, protected cocoon. None of them seemed to know what happened either, even as the game was being played.
Only the irascible old-guy-driven Rock's House is relentlessly belligerent. They are running constant lotteries and contests on the best plan to kidnap Kelly and replace him with Knute Rockne, who is dead and will remain so. They don't care.
None of the irascible old guys seemed to know either.
Legally speaking, a college player's health is not a matter of public record. The private university gets to decide what it reveals because it has no fiduciary responsibility to fans.
Notre Dame enforces that principle religiously, so to speak.
Different rules apply to the NFL, where fear of tricking gamblers with bad information or no information, is a guarded, regulated issue. The NFL is a business that functions with government protection, which means it must reveal the facts of its commerce, if not the truth.
So revealing NFL player availability is a business-required commandment because the business is fundamentally gambling. We used to like pro football because of the game; now we like it because of the point spreads.
For myself, I always thought duping gamblers into bad bets was one of the moral balancing aspects of that risk. Sort of applied cosmic justice.
In fact, I once pondered a commercial business to troll deliberately false sports information and dupe betting books into moving the odds slightly - and then bet on the false shift. You'd have to be accurate only intermittently to keep the suckers on the line.
Notre Dame can do whatever it wants and rationalize the conduct - both good and bad - as it sees fit. Inside the moral confines of the religion it claims to represent, of course.
But if you are a sports "journalist" (a term I apply with high amusement), what's your excuse for hiding the truth rather than revealing it? What's your excuse for not knowing the truth? What function do you serve in the universe except as used car salesman trying to unload a bent-frame, rusting Yugo?
The mini-COVID outbreak did produce several winning moments. Seventeen players made their Irish debut, including most of the 17-player freshman class. One was freshman defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger, an immigrant from Germany who spent the summer locked down there over COVID-related travel restrictions. He got in the game, and made tackles.
Then there's linebacker Jack Lamb, who has been eclipsed by intense recruiting for his spot and has seen his playing time diminished.
Before South Florida, he might have been on his way to another school, or even out of football.
Said Kelly: "I'm sick about losing any player that has committed so much time and effort to the cause and their commitment to Notre Dame football. But I'm also so excited when I get to see a Jack Lamb, who might have been a couple of days from thinking about he may never play again and now he's out there playing and there's a smile on his face. Where there is unfortunate circumstances, there's great opportunities, and that's kind of how we look at it . . . We look at it as not adversity, but as opportunity. So it's really just the way you look at it and that's how we choose to look at it."
Maybe all that's true, though it seems like one of those "meandering" Kelly explanations of which Hansen noted. It requires a giant leap of mind-altering, logic-twisting gymnastics to turn COVID-19 into a good thing, even in the South Bend cocoon.
The virus has killed 200,000 Americans. It's not been particularly good for anyone.
David Rutter is the former publisher/editor of the Lake County News-Sun, and more importantly, the former author of the Beachwood's late, great "The Week In WTF" column. His most recent piece for us was Dak Prescott Is The Hero Skip Bayless Will Never Be. You can also check him out at his Theeditor50's blog. He welcomes your comments.
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Posted on May 13, 2021