MEMPHIS – Last Friday night, I found myself at the Liberty Bowl with my 12-year-old son, J.D.
Memphis was playing its spring game, and we happened to be in town for a soccer tournament J.D.’s team was playing in. Not only was it an opportunity to watch college football, but he got to catch up with former Bryant High School defensive lineman Kajuan Robinson. Robinson and J.D. became friends thanks to Robinson’s little brother and we made arrangements to link up at the team facility after the game.
It stood to be a fun night, and it was. However, there was a bit of damper placed on the experience. As J.D. and I looked for open seating for the free event, we found some bleacher seats in the corner end zone. It was made clear to us that we needed to have our face coverings on when we entered, but I figured as is standard protocol at most outdoor events; we could pull them down if we were socially distanced from other families.
So we did, and the game began. In the meantime, a couple of groups entered our row, but they were still more than six feet away, so I still felt comfortable staying uncovered. However, J.D. noticed a young usher bellow us gesturing to us to put our masks up. Since I am old and don’t see or hear well, especially, when people are wearing masks themselves, I didn’t immediately follow, but J.D. offered a quick translation. “Dad, he’s telling us to pull our masks up.” A bit startled, as I was locked in on the action, I quickly pulled up my gaiter, and J.D. fixed his mask.
No big deal, but then the usher started targeting others. Those Tigers fans were not as cooperative as we were. They resisted and started shouting. One older gentleman said, “You must be a Democrat.” They reluctantly pulled them up after giving him an earful.
Another elderly woman told the usher to “You better go tell all the people in that section, too.”
He was actually on his way to do that. After encountering several people who were very rude to him, you could tell the usher, who appeared to be in his late teens or early 20s, was shaken. A veteran usher supervisor came over to console him.
J.D .and I took all of this in, and I was nearly biting my tongue off, wanting tell these idiots to jump in the lake and maybe in not those nice of terms. Two things triggered me. One, I was irritated that a kid (when you’ve 47, anyone under 25 is a kid), who was probably trying to pay his way through college or supplement his income was having to take this kind of abuse. Maybe the policy is over the top. But, is it this kid’s fault? He’s doing his job and would probably rather be doing a million other things than reprimanding you. I thought of that kid’s parents and if somebody talked to J.D. like that. You also have to remember that I’ve lived in a bubble for around 14 months, only going to my kids’ games and the grocery store and other errands. I have been sheltered from this sort of outlandish behavior for a long time. When my brother, who flies to the West Coast regularly for his job from Little Rock, told me the kind of abuse he’d seen regularly from patrons to flight attendants and other passengers to him. He, too, had found it hard not to lash out.
But, in the end, I see a young blonde-haired boy sitting next to me, who is obviously unnerved by the turn of events, and I know I wouldn’t be a good example if I escalated things in front of him, even though I think it was the right thing to do. I explained to him that we surely could have said something and would have been justified in doing so, but the timing wasn’t right. He understood and moments later all of the parties mentioned fetched cans of beer so they could get through the loophole of the policy which allows for masks to be pulled down when consuming food and drink.
It needs to be pointed out that the crowd wasn’t large in numbers. Fans congregated on the home side of the stadium and some rows were eliminated. I began to think about comments that have been made by different athletic directors nationwide about opening up closer to full capacity during football season. The Texas Rangers played their home opener in front of a nearly packed crowd, many of whom were mask-less.
If the trend continues where cases go down and vaccinations continue to increase, I don’t think sports venues, including those at Arkansas and the SEC, shouldn’t require people to wear them. The scene at Memphis was a debacle and will be way worse September 18 when Mississippi State rolls in to play at the Liberty Bowl if the same protocols are in place.
What I’m afraid of is measures will allow a full capacity but still require masks. That would be a recipe for disaster. Think of a full Razorback Stadium for a 6 p.m. game where many in the stands are ‘lubricated.’ I’d rather clean toilets with my tooth brush than work crowd control under those conditions. Drunk, angry football fans full of testosterone and in some cases political rebellion. No thanks.
With most American adults able to be vaccinated, it seems we are at a point, or definitely should be by September where mask use at an outdoor event should be optional. If you want to wear one, do it. If you are vaccinated, you shouldn’t have to worry. If you aren’t and you get sick, you know the repercussions. Some health officials may worry about the variant of COVID spreading at a large-scale event, but when will that subside? Probably need to rip off the band aid or in this case the mask. Some public schools are already doing away with masks in indoor situations and most all of them will be gone in September.
This is an entirely different conversation if we are talking in January or February. The country was in the middle of a surge and the vaccine wasn’t accessible to many people. The situation is drastically different now.
What’s clear is if you continue make restrictions on fans, it won’t be a fun football season. I found that out firsthand last week.
Image courtesy of Liberty Bowl Facebook page