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Taking a Step Back

By Grant Mitchell | March 24
Tailgating prohibited
Photo: Matt Gentry

Virginia Tech announced that it would not be hosting a spring football game this year due to COVID-19-related concerns.

“We realize this is disappointing for many and certainly our football team, but we believe that it is the proper decision for the Virginia Tech community and the town of Blacksburg,” said Athletics Director Whit Babcock.

Whit babcock
AD Whit Babcock speaking on Zoom (Photo taken from: WDBJ).

This announcement came as a slap in the face to many disappointed fans that had been anxiously anticipating the return of their beloved Hokies, who are coming off of their second losing season in the past three years. The program had not faced this fortune since the 1992 season, when Head Coach Frank Beamer’s squad finished 2-8-1 after going 5-6 the year prior.

Another blow to the optics of the game’s cancellation was how poorly the decision coincided with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s announcement roughly an hour later that outdoor venues would be allowed to operate at a 30% capacity and with no hard cap on total attendance. Questions regarding the disparity between these developments arose from fans as social media became a whirlwind of a discussion board, primarily targeting resentment towards the VT administration.

The general consensus would be that since Saturday defeats became more regular than victories, the football’s public relations team has attempted to save face rather than directly addressing the concerns of its constituency. As a result, the program as a whole has appeared out of touch with its grass-roots supporters.

A very formulaic approach to social promotion that revolves around posting lectures from coaches, sporadic pictures from practice and statistical accomplishments, most recently “Most Sacks (929.0) & INTs (406) in [America]” in the team’s Twitter bio, has many wondering whether these decisions are inadvertently tone-deaf, or if the office is bereft of ingenuity and creativity entirely.

Despite having a massive target on their back, the PR team has succeeded in developing intriguing segments in the past couple of months: a virtual tour of the brand-new, 22,520 square-foot weight room, player interviews with “Voice of the Hokies,” Jon Laaser and Zoom engagement sessions with coaches and former players are a few bright spots for a crew that has been under constant fire in recent times.

It is important to note that Virginia Tech is not alone in bypassing a spring football game: Louisville previously announced that they, too, would be skipping the tradition, while Wake Forest and Syracuse are yet to announce a date.

What hurts Hokie fans is the lack of visibility their team is getting— nine spring games are currently slated to air on the ACC Network, commencing on March 27th with Duke and wrapping up with North Carolina and Boston College on April 24th; combine this with Virginia Tech opting to remain in the dark and ultimately announce their plans to move forward without a game after not scheduling a date that they would have had the option of cancelling in the first place makes their recent promotional efforts seem disingenuous.

Now, nobody can fault VT for attempting to protect their players and community from being exposed to COVID-19. One of the many benefits to having a spring game, for students in particular, is the rejuvenation of social energy at a tailgate. As hard as the administration and local law enforcement may have tried to limit these gatherings, it is hard to believe that they would have had great success after pictures of packed-out parties recently circulated social media on St. Patrick’s Day.

Live reps can be tricky at this time of year, and the team can use all of the practice it can get. In this sense, missing out on a game in a limited, 15-day period of time on the field can be seen as a positive, if anything.

But where one door closes, the other should not have to remain closed.

The University of Florida announced on Tuesday that it would be airing a two-hour spring practice special on the SEC Network in lieu of an organized game. It is innovations like these that can create a greater draw and enhance the dynamic between a program and its audience; a measure that would behoove Virginia Tech considerably.

Next year has the potential to determine the course of the entire program for the Hokies: win and all is forgiven or, at least, forgotten; lose and the hailstorm of criticism may eventually turn into a coup until the entire front office has been replaced.