What does a guy who covers the Patriot League do when there's no Patriot League events to cover?
In ordinary years, this would be a rhetorical question. Ordinarily, I would be pushing out pieces about Lehigh football, Patriot League sports, or perhaps previews on College Sports Journal, which I operate. From early May through early January, during an ordinary year I am covering Lehigh football best I can while also coordinating writers that make excellent content on primarily G5 and FCS schools.
In this hellish COVID year of 2020, the "what do you do now?" question became something I actually had to ask myself.
2020 for everyone on the planet has been a harrowing experience. But I fully acknowledge and understand that me and my family have navigated this landscape probably the best we could, and we are damned lucky. We've had family members who have had COVID, but the older members of our family clan, including my wife's 91 year old grandmother, have been safe. You can talk precautions, but a lot of it is just luck. In that sense, we've been lucky, and I understand that.
So I've hesitated for months to try to write something about the loss of Lehigh sports for me, and what it's meant. It hasn't felt right to try to talk about that when someone reading this might have an permanently empty chair at the dinner table.
But the pause on Lehigh sports has had an effect on me. Looking forward to the next game, the next Rivalry meeting in a bunch of sports, is what hope is. When games can't be contested, hope is lost for a lot of people. I understand this in a visceral way.
In order to understand why this was a very big deal for me, you have to understand that I have been writing about Lehigh football and Patriot League sports for a very long time. Since the late 1990s, where I came up with my first little-trafficked website focused on Lehigh football, to 2002, when I started printing out articles from The Morning Call in a effort to research a book about that season, to 2003, where I registered this blog address and started writing about Lehigh football, I've been cranking out Lehigh football content every year since.
It made for a rough 2020. It's not good for mental health - mine, or anyone else's. You want to be able to lift people up, make them perhaps not think about the weighty problems of the year, and distract them with an analysis of a meaningful, upcoming matchup. But that wasn't meant to be this year.
At times, Lehigh Athletics rebroadcasted classic games, and they were a great distraction for me and other Lehigh fans. It helped for a bit, and I enthusiastically followed every broadcast and added my running Twitter commentary on each game. They were a load of fun, and made me forget for a couple of hours that I was still at home, that it still might not have been totally safe to go out.
But the agonizing uncertainty on "when normalcy will return" in the form of the pace and cadence of Lehigh athletic activities were deeply affecting. You don't think simple things like catching a practice and trying to figure out the two-deep are good for the mental health, but they are, especially if it's the sort of thing you've done every year, at about the same time. Their absence gets replaced by doomscrolling. It's bad karma.
At the end of the year, I was gloomy. It felt like I somehow didn't do enough. I felt like my writing had gone to crap. Where was that manuscript I was going to write? Was I making sourdough bread when I should have been doing more journalism? Did I do enough on recruiting?
But that was just COVID talking. When I looked through what I wrote, I became immensely proud of the quality of many of the things I did write about. It was just different.
One piece I did involved Patriot League Executive Director Jennifer Heppel discussing the decision to cancel the spring 2020 season and postpone fall 2020 sports. It was a good historical record on what happened in those chaotic days in mid-March, as the Patriot League men's final was going on.
Another involved the opinion that we shouldn't restart college sports in the fall. It wasn't a perfect take all around, I admit, but it still feels for the most part on the nose.
After binging on two film renditions of the Ronald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I wrote a piece talking about how pure imagination fueled both Willy Wonka and the schools of the NCAA as well. It's aged well, I think.
In June, as the Patriot League presidents set their parameters for the reopening of fall competition, I got on the phone again with the executive director of the Patriot League and talked to her about how the Patriot League Presidents came to their conclusions. I think it is critical to understanding what is motivated the schools of the Patriot League to do what they did. Unlike other conferences, where the athletic directors tell the presidents what to do, the Presidents words are extremely important, and are what generally moves the bus in the league.
When the Presidents of the Patriot League officially postponed the fall sports season, I wrote a piece about what the loss means to the Lehigh community. "More than Broadway or the NFL or Major League Baseball, it is the quiet, less publicized decisions like the IronPigs not playing baseball that are the single most underreported story in the country right now. It is not industry – professional gambling and big money professional sports – that is the real story. It is the Lehigh Valleys of this world that have lost the little things that make life a bit less terrible in the summer."
When Central Arkansas and Southeast Missouri State decided to proceed with the "FCS Kickoff Classic", despite the risks, I wrote a deep dive into the many actors and layers that it took for that game to be contested. I think it ended up being a very good indication for the calculus, and reasons, for why college football games happened at all this year - it was simply the first.
Lehigh's challenges this fall were great, but I did catch up with head coach Tom Gilmore and asked him about how he was approaching this fall like no other. “We have no other choice but to fight through this in order to improve and get tougher, rather than dwell on our disappointment,” he told me. “This has and will continue to test our discipline with the virus looming in our environment, but his is also an opportunity to find new ways to improve physically, mentally and emotionally. We have been pushing through the challenges to find the best ways to accomplish our work and to investigate ways to improve now and in the future.”
And around the anniversary when the 156th meeting of The Rivalry was to be played, I wrote a piece talking about the agonizing limbo Lehigh players, coaches, administrators and fans found themselves this November.
I look back at all of these pieces with a lot of pride. You may not like them, you may not agree with my opinion on some or all of it, the Pulitzers probably won't be contacting me about any awards about them, but I feel like they were some of the best pieces I've ever written. I think the final one, about the people around The Rivalry, really captured the complicated legacy of what it meant to Lehigh and Lafayette people.
"You can debate as to whether any games should be played or not – but a moment should be spared thinking about the athletes who were asked to put on hold what they love to do, just to have other schools continue to play in spite of the clear risks of doing so.
"In the entire process, nowhere has any thought, or any consideration, been made for these athletes -literally tens of thousands of them – on the sidelines in the fall of 2020, who have been robbed a normal season by COVID-19 and then kicked in the teeth by the NCAA, school presidents, and administrators at some schools who allowed and decided that getting money from TV contracts or something was more important that their health and safety of their own communities, the quality of play, and the health and safety of their own players."
Like most things in 2020, there was a tinge of bitterness in my writing, because I was unhappy with what the chaos that was college football in 2020 brought us. What I hope most of all is that 2021 will see my writing lose that bitter edge, and get back to what it should be - the hope of the next game.