by Doug Ireland

It’s always football season in Louisiana.

The sports conversation is constant in the Sportsman’s Paradise, a nickname that recognizes Louisiana’s abundant outdoors pursuits in fishing and hunting and really has nothing to do with football, basketball, baseball, softball or any of those sports that don’t involve hookin’ or trackin’ them down.

As we talk about sports, Louisiana’s chatter centers on football. The Saints, the Tigers, the colleges around the state, your favorite high school teams, football moves the needle like nothing else.

For the Northwestern State Demons, the Grambling Tigers, the Southern Jaguars, the McNeese Cowboys, the Southeastern Lions and Nicholls Colonels, it’s football season. Actually, a truncated version of the postponed 2020 season, in 2021.

Sounds weird, and it is. This football season will have bands and cheerleaders – socially distanced, of course. It will have fans in the stands, like we saw at December’s LHSAA Prep Classic in NSU’s Turpin Stadium – socially distanced, of course. It will NOT have a staple of the college football experience, tailgating. Neither did last fall’s college games at LSU, Tulane, Louisiana Tech, ULM and UL Lafayette.

Why did those schools play in the fall, and these are just now teeing it up?

As much as safety concerns were really a concern, the overwhelming reason in these parts was money. When decisions were being made in July and early August, university presidents were, like all of us, hoping for some scientific thunderclap that just wasn’t possible. The overwhelming uncertainty about short and long-term implications of the Corona-19 virus led to unprecedented dilemmas, still being debated, over what was prudent. But it was very clear that to play sports, as the NBA and Major League Baseball were doing, and the NFL was preparing to do, required frequent testing. At that point, testing costs were high.

Northwestern State faced a projected $200,000 tab to test its fall sports athletes – see, it starts with the 115 football players and their 30-40 coaches and staff, but would have to also be done with soccer, volleyball, tennis, basketball, not to mention the spring sports of track, baseball and softball that train all fall.

There wasn’t $200k on a low-hanging tree branch lining Chaplin’s Lake. Hence, along with all of the hypothetical scenarios about safety, the very real consideration of cost blunted the instinct to push forward with high hopes, good intentions and faith that all would be well, and somehow the expenses would dip or some federal program would appear to mitigate the financial hit.

It was about dollars, and sense.

Now testing costs are fractions of what they were last August. We’ve seen the higher-resourced colleges complete football seasons with low attendance, but what appears to be very high levels of health safety.

Those schools played in no small part because of TV revenue, multi-millions at the SEC level, down to relative trickles for Conference USA and the Sun Belt. The FCS-level schools like NSU, McNeese, Grambling, Southern, SLU and Nicholls don’t make TV money. They pay to be on TV (exceptions: the Bayou Classic, and this spring’s SWAC programming that allows ESPN to target the attractive HBCU audience). Those CST, ESPN-Plus or ESPN3 games you see involving them are bankrolled by the schools and their conference offices.

That’s why all but 14 FCS schools, among almost 130, did not play football in the fall. A few in the northeast, the Ivy League and such, are not playing this spring either due to health concerns (they have the money, but not the appetite for any modicum of risk or political fallout). Those that played last fall could bankroll the testing costs. Central Arkansas had a local hospital that provided free testing. FREE. So, the Bears played on.

Finally, testing cost is not a major issue. Health concerns are being allayed with vaccines and scientific advances. It does seem much safer to play football, and live our lives, than it did entering the football season last fall.

For coach Brad Laird, and seniors like gutsy Gavin Landry, a pass catching machine, and hard-hitting linebackers, Blake Stephenson and Kyle Moore, the games are definitely on – well, except the first one Feb. 20 that was wiped out by winter’s assault on the area. The Demons’ season kicks off Saturday evening, March 6 at home against Nicholls. Northwestern has two more home games March 20 (McNeese) and April 1 (Sam Houston), with all slated for 6 o’clock kicks.

Six games are better than none. There will be playoffs in reach and a Southland Conference championship to shoot for. Next fall, things should be close to normal. Right now, Laird and his crew are thrilled to have this opportunity to play.

Photos by Chris Reich, NSU Photographic Services

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