Opinion: Wear Your Masks so Players Can “Wear Our Jerseys”

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    (Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

    RTI contributor Spencer Morrell is the author of this article

    During the global health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, sports have been canceled for months. In March, as the United States tried to gain control over the spread of the highly contagious virus, sporting events and the large crowds that accompany them were canceled and postponed across the country. Basketball arenas and baseball diamonds fell silent at every level of play, from elementary schools to professional leagues. High school soccer and softball teams were powerless as their seasons slipped away.

    All the athletes and sports fans could do was sit and wait, defenseless against a virus that has infected millions of Americans indiscriminately.

    Just as sports being canceled was the sign to many Americans that the COVID-19 virus was a serious threat that would drastically affect their lives, the resumption of sports could serve as a sign that their lives may be on the way back to some level of normalcy. However, this long-awaited return could be in jeopardy.

    COVID-19 cases are spiking at dangerous levels across the country, with the college football season only a mere month away. The Pac-12 and Big Ten have already announced conference-only schedules for the 2020 football season, and other conferences may soon follow suit.

    The 2020 college football and basketball seasons currently hang in the balance.

    Sports fans are no longer powerless to watch another season slip away, though. Fans can make a difference now more than ever in their teams’ ability to play, but not by cheering in the stands; they can make a difference by wearing a mask in public spaces, a facemask that is proven to help stop the spread of COVID-19 from person to person.

    Tennessee men’s basketball player Uros Plavsic and Vol football player Trey Smith know this.

    Plavsic, a center for the basketball team, posted on social media last Friday imploring fans to “Wear your mask so we can wear our jerseys.” Trey Smith, UT’s star offensive lineman for the football team, echoed this sentiment while being featured in a video produced by Governor Bill Lee asking Tennesseans to wear masks.

    These are pleas from student-athletes who desperately want to play the sports they love. Sports that the fans claim to love as well.

    The Tennessee football team’s situation is pressing and immediate. The athletes on the Volunteer football team are staring down the very real possibility of missing out on playing their football season, which is scheduled to begin on September 5th. Trey Smith could be at risk of losing his senior season, a season that many thought he may not return for, and a season he deserves after all the adversity he has pushed through in his time on Rocky Top. Smith’s struggle to play through blood clots in his lungs is well-documented. Trey Smith, Jeremy Pruitt, and Smith’s doctors have been able to create a plan that helps Smith manage the condition and step on the field on Saturdays to battle for the Big Orange. However, the danger is still there every time he steps onto the field that the clots in his lungs could return and end his season.

    Trey Smith knows the risks, yet despite this he still gives his all for Tennessee every single snap he plays on Shields-Watkins Field. He wants a senior season. He has earned a senior season.

    Tennessee fans should do everything in their power to make sure he gets one.

    What they can do is wear a mask. There is nothing a Vol fan could do right now that would help Trey Smith more than wearing a mask in public. A simple act with an impact.

    The basketball team may have more time before their season starts, but they are still in danger of suffering postponed games and outright cancellations due to the pandemic. Uros Plavsic came all the way from Serbia to play the sport he loves in the United States. He transferred across the country from Tempe, Arizona to play for a school and state that he loves. He waited for months last season as the NCAA deliberated over his eligibility without knowing if he would even be able to step on the court to support his teammates.

    Still, he practiced hard day after day, week after week, and month after month, waiting all the while. Eventually, he received the long-awaited news that he would be able to join his teammates on the floor.

    It would be a tragedy if he were to miss any more time playing the game of basketball due to the unnecessary spread of a virus.

    Vol fans know Trey Smith’s and Uros Plavsic’s stories well. They know the hardships that these two athletes have faced. Vol fans remember worrying about Smith’s health and wondering if he would ever be able to put on his helmet again. They felt relief when they saw the news that his condition could be managed and cheered when he was able to take the field once more. Tennessee fans value every snap they see him play, and they hope they get to see him play on Sundays.

    Fans also remember being stunned when they heard the news that the NCAA had not granted Uros Plavsic’s waiver for immediate eligibility for this past season. Once the shock wore off, they were filled with righteous anger towards the NCAA along with sympathy and support for Plavsic. Vol fans started the “Free Uros” movement on social media. The words could be found on hats and T-shirts and in thousands of social media posts. The movement was relentless and eventually successful. Fans were elated when Plavsic was granted eligibility about halfway through the season, and Thompson-Boling Arena roared when he took the floor for the first time. They had stood behind him every step of the way, and finally, he was able to play the game he loved.

    These are athletes that have gone through grief and uncertainty to put on the orange and white. Their stories are a testament to all they have gone through, and what they are willing to sacrifice for Tennessee and for the sports they love.

    Now, they face more uncertainty. But they don’t have to face it alone.

    Vol fans can now help shape the narrative of these athletes’ stories. They can help give Trey Smith his senior season, and they can help Uros Plavsic finally play a full season of college basketball with his teammates. These student-athletes have made sacrifices for Vol fans, and now it’s time for Vol fans everywhere to make a sacrifice for them.

    Wear a mask in public. Help write these athletes’ stories. It might be uncomfortable, but Trey Smith’s blood clots were probably uncomfortable, too. It might be inconvenient, but it was certainly inconvenient for Uros Plavsic to sit out half of a basketball season due to a protracted NCAA appeals process.

    It’s time for Vol fans to give their all for Tennessee. It is time to give back to these athletes in the most meaningful way possible. It’s time for Vol fans and sports fans everywhere to wear a mask so that these student-athletes can have the opportunity to play the sports they love.

    Tennessee fans love their Vols, and they show it by packing out stadiums and arenas across the country, all while proudly wearing the orange and white. Now, Vol fans can show their love for their teams by proudly wearing a mask. It’s the simplest and most impactful way for a Volunteer fan to show their unwavering support for Tennessee athletics and sports at large.

    Wear a mask so players can wear their jerseys. It’s the least any fan could do, and most importantly, it saves lives. Nothing embodies the Volunteer spirit more than that.