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Sport Opinion: College football fans seek comfort in familiar voice, Paul Finebaum

01:01  08 april  2020
01:01  08 april  2020 Source:   usatoday.com

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On the fourth Monday since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down normal American life, the mood on Paul Finebaum’s SEC Network show veered toward somber. 

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The day’s first caller, Pat, began by wishing the host health and safety while discussing grocery delivery and touting the role of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci in eventually playing sports again. Next up was Kathy in San Antonio, who wanted to talk about Archbishop Joseph Marino, a regular guest who was assigned to the Vatican last year. Noel wanted to know about Finebaum’s wife, who practices internal medicine in the Charlotte area. Yet another caller who goes by “Buck Wild” wanted to talk about Amazon deliveries and how long coronavirus survives on cardboard. 

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Finebaum, 64, may have carved out a niche across the various platforms of ESPN as the SEC’s biggest cheerleader, but he quickly realized that the normal spring topic menu of Nick Saban vs. Dabo Swinney or LSU’s quarterback battle wasn’t going to reflect the moment we’re in. 

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From very early on, Finebaum told USA TODAY Sports, he wanted his show to follow and react to what was happening in the news and steer away from fluffy sports topics like simulating the NCAA tournament. 

But now, inevitably, that conversation is evolving into something that makes a significant part Finebaum’s audience deeply and uniquely uncomfortable: Whether college football will be played this fall, on schedule, in the same format we’ve always known. 

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“I think until this week it was not topic A,” said Finebaum, who is broadcasting now from his home in an audio-only format. “I think most people were still swimming through this and getting used to it and more concerned about what they weren’t able to do or watch or participate in. But over the last couple days there’s more of an awareness that this thing may not open on time and if it does, it may not look like it’s looked.”

Neither will Finebaum’s show, at least for the foreseeable future. While its appeal has long been rooted in conflict — Alabama vs. Auburn when he started on Birmingham radio, then between the regular callers who became almost like supporting characters, then ultimately between Finebaum and more national figures like Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh — this one portends something different. 

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Though Finebaum avoids talking politics, the argument over whether football season is in peril has tended to fall along ideological lines, with optimism vs. pessimism serving as a stand-in for Red State vs. Blue State. In many ways, it’s an analog to the conversation that is happening all over the country about the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak and how long the country is going to be shut down. 

Never was that more clear than last week when ESPN college football announcer Kirk Herbstreit drew criticism from some coaches for expressing skepticism that there would be a 2020 season. Then Friday the conversation turned in a different direction when Clemson coach Dabo Swinney (who has two of Herbstreit’s sons on his roster, by the way), said he had “zero doubt” college football would be played on time with full stadiums, comparing an eventual American victory over coronavirus to the Battle of Normandy and putting a man on the moon.

Swinney’s comments drew a good bit of blowback for being too blithe at a time of deep uncertainty about the future and also unhelpful given that the governor of South Carolina, to that point, still hadn’t issued a statewide stay-at-home order. Many others, however, defended Swinney, asking what was wrong with a little bit of optimism at a time when people need it.

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“If you listen to our program, it’s almost a mirror image of what you’re getting on cable news,” Finebaum said. “You have hope, maybe false hope; and then the other side of it, which is not doomsday but it’s the realistic approach and the realistic questions. Will people feel comfortable being part of this again? I think it’s a very honest debate but I can usually listen to a caller and have a good idea of where they’re getting their information.

“I’ve tried to shy away from strong opinions either way. I feel like my role right now is more of a moderator and host than a bloviator because there’s enough opinions out there without mine.”

Though Finebaum said his show serves as “comfort food” to many in his audience, particularly in this time of upheaval, it will be likely to generate just as much newsworthy content and commentary this offseason than at any point since it moved to the SEC Network when it launched in 2014. 

That’s partly because of the SEC’s place in the power structure and its influence in determining what college football will look like but also because Finebaum plans to fill plenty of hours getting opinions from the sport’s newsmakers. 

On Monday, for instance, Finebaum interviewed Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick — not exactly an SEC Network regular — who said he did not favor a college football season being played without fans in the stands unless it was in a very limited window to start the season.

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Though Finebaum said he isn’t sure what his show will look like six or seven weeks from now if there’s no resolution to the big questions surrounding the start of the season, it makes for an easier programming challenge in some ways. Fans’ interest may eventually turn back to traditional football topics, but as long as there’s deep uncertainty about where coronavirus is taking us, the content for his show is likely to be rich.

“I had no idea what Swarbrick was going to say and he gave a very honest answer and most people are being pretty blunt and honest because I don’t think there’s really a choice right now other than to say you don’t know,” Finebaum said. “Guys like Herbstreit who gave an honest guttural opinion just got massacred, but I hope people will keep speaking out because it’s too important to hide behind fake hope. I don’t want to be a pessimist, but for the crowd that wants to say we’re going to be back better than ever, I hope they’re right.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: College football fans seek comfort in familiar voice, Paul Finebaum

Ohio State AD Gene Smith: Playing games in stadiums without fans is still unsafe .
With the COVID-19 pandemic still in full swing, many in the college football world have started to question what the upcoming season this fall will look like. Nobody knows for sure what the sports world will look like by then. While some have floated the idea of playing college sporting events this fall in stadiums without fans present, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said on Friday that he doesn’t understand how that would be safe. “ITo be fair, there are still plenty of variables in play and several months left before the season is supposed to start. Nobody knows for sure what the sports world will look like by then.

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