College football teams change Thanksgiving traditions amid pandemic

By Kevin Draper and Alan Blinder

At Colorado, the Thanksgiving meal for football players, a ritual since at least the mid-1990s, will not happen. Ohio State’s seniors will miss out on a tradition of Thanksgiving practice. At Virginia, any players who attend a large Thanksgiving gathering could have to quarantine.

College football players across the country are accustomed to playing and practicing through Thanksgiving. But as with everything else during this season like no other, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing some teams to make changes large and small to their well-honed routines.

Public officials are warning this holiday that a potentially lethal combination of widespread travel and large indoor gatherings will rapidly increase the already surging spread of the virus. University administrators are scrambling to offer guidance to students.

John Thrasher, the president of Florida State University, is asking students not to return to campus if they leave for the holiday.

“Students, if you go home for the Thanksgiving break, please stay there until the start of the spring semester,” he wrote in a campuswide email last week. Florida State has two weeks remaining in the semester after Thanksgiving — two weeks Thrasher would prefer those students complete from home.

But his email does not apply to the Seminoles, Florida State’s 2-6 football team, who postponed last weekend’s game against Clemson over virus-related concerns. They face Virginia on Saturday.

“Our team will stay here in Tallahassee and practice before traveling on Friday,” a Florida State spokesman, Robert Wilson, said in an email.

Practicing during Thanksgiving week is typically one of the nuisances of being a college football player, a sacrifice made each autumn often in service of rivalry games. This season, however, skipping past Thanksgiving might be a saving grace for college football, which has already had more than 90 games canceled or postponed because of the coronavirus.

The New York Times contacted all 65 football programs in the Power 5 conferences — the Atlantic Coast (which includes Notre Dame this fall), the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12 and the Southeastern — to ask how they were handling Thanksgiving this season. Among the 47 that responded, the answers were quite similar: They are mostly treating this week like any other coronavirus-inflected week.

The University of Illinois doesn’t have classes during Thanksgiving week, but it is an otherwise normal week for the Fighting Illini, who will host the third-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday. Players will be tested for the virus between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. today, practice at 8 a.m. and have a team Thanksgiving meal at 11 a.m., according to Kent Brown, an associate athletic director.

“The schedule isn’t much different than past seasons, although players were able to leave campus to gather for Thanksgiving at a local team member or coach’s house for Thanksgiving before reporting back Friday morning,” Brown said. “But in the past, players never had to test for COVID every morning.”

Colorado has had a game the weekend after Thanksgiving every year since 1996, when the Big 8 became the Big 12. There is traditionally a Thanksgiving meal for players and staff members, but it will be scrapped this year, said David Plati, an associate athletic director at Colorado. The team has dispensed with all communal meals this year.

“The team hasn’t even eaten a meal together — everything has been grab-and-go, even on the one road trip,” Plati said. Active players also have not been allowed to go home since training camp began Oct. 9.

At Ohio State, adapting to the pandemic means postponing a beloved Thanksgiving rite.

The Buckeyes typically have their final regular-season practice on the morning of the holiday.

After that weekend’s game, at least in an ordinary year, the only games left are the Big Ten championship (if they qualify, which they have in each of the past three seasons) and at least one bowl game. The Thanksgiving practice usually concludes with Senior Tackle, when each senior addresses the team and then hits a blocking sled or tackling dummy one final time.

Afterward, players who live in or near Columbus can take some teammates home for Thanksgiving, while others have their own families in town or go to a coach’s house.

“This year, however, no one will be going home for Thanksgiving and the team will dine together Thursday [today],” Jerry Emig, an associate athletic director, wrote in an email. “Senior Tackle won’t take place until later. We fly to Illinois Friday afternoon.”

Most schools said they did not give their players any specific guidance for Thanksgiving, relying on the messages they have conveyed for months. That message, as John Bianco, an associate athletic director at Texas, put it: “They’re constantly reminded by our team medical personnel and coaches to always wear a mask, wash hands, stay at a safe distance and to not be in any large crowds.”

One of the few schools that did give players Thanksgiving travel guidance was Virginia, which updated the travel policy sent to all athletes in October, said Jim Daves, an assistant athletic director.

If a player has a Thanksgiving meal in a hotel with family members without social distancing? He will have to quarantine. If the gathering is small, with mask wearing and social distancing? No quarantining necessary. If a player visits home for just a day and social distancing is followed? No quarantine. But if he somehow finds enough time to go home for more than one day? Quarantine.

Travel- and family-related peril has been ever-present this season. With shorter schedules because of fewer, or no, nonconference games and some leagues starting the season late, as well as unexpected open weekends after games were postponed or canceled, athletic departments have fretted over off-days all season long.

“Quite frankly, it was more of a concern a few weeks ago when we had an open week and the players had several days off,” said Steve Fink, an assistant athletic director at South Carolina.

The coronavirus will threaten the season right until the end. The number of cases is spiking nationwide, and the virus has already killed more than 257,000 people in the United States. If the worst fears of public health officials are borne out, those numbers will only accelerate in December, when players are practicing for the extremely lucrative bowl games but also have unusual amounts of free time.

“Who knows what will happen with any type of bowl game events?” said Steve Roe, an assistant athletic director at Iowa.

Some bowl games have already been canceled. But on Tuesday night, the College Football Playoff’s selection committee released its first rankings of the season. Its semifinal matchups are scheduled for Jan. 1, and the national championship game is planned for Jan. 11.