Alabama Coach Nick Saban, usually tight-lipped and combative when it comes to questions about football, spoke passionately Monday about the game’s place in society, particularly at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has added uncertainty to sports.

“Is it more important than public safety? No, I don’t think so,” Saban told reporters. “Is there a way we can do that and keep people safe? I think a lot of people are trying to do that. And if we can do that, I think we can play. If we can’t do that, I think somebody will make a decision that maybe we shouldn’t play. But I don’t think that we should not try.

“I really appreciate the fact that we have a lot of people out there working really hard, all right? Because this is about the players, all right? This is not about – everybody acts like we want to play for the money. We want to play for the players. I want to play for the players. We have a lot of guys on our team that can create a lot of value for themselves by playing this season, and we can create a lot of value and these guys that work very hard to try to create and accomplish something as a team.

“All those things, to me, are important to the players. I want to play for the players. I know it’s important to the fans. I love our fans. I love the way they support our team. They’re a part of our team. We want them to continue to be a part of our team in whatever way that they can. But this is really about providing an opportunity for the players, if we can do it in a safe way.”

Alabama’s season is scheduled to begin Sept. 26 along with its fellow members of the SEC, one of three Power Five conferences that intend to play a fall season. The College Football Playoffs is also scheduled to take place, the only fall sports championship not canceled by the NCAA.

As students have returned to campuses across the country, there have been coronavirus and COVID-19 clusters, most recently at North Carolina, North Carolina State and Southern Cal. Saban’s remarks came on the day when the university’s coronavirus dashboard registered 531 confirmed cases among students, faculty and staff since classes on the roughly 38,000-student campus resumed Aug. 19. Earlier Monday, the city of Tuscaloosa closed bars for the next two weeks and halted bar service at restaurants.

For months, Saban has urged fans to be prudent. In March, he appeared in a video reminding people to wash their hands frequently and practice social distancing; in May he urged that face masks be worn. Playing “in a safe way” means that fans at the 101,821-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium will be limited to 20 percent of capacity throughout the season, the school announced last week. Fans and staff will have to pass a health check to get in. Fans must wear a mask upon entering the stadium and working staff will be required to wear a mask at all times. Tailgating outside the stadium has been prohibited.

“I don’t think we’d have 101,000 people coming to the games if it wasn’t important to them,” Saban said. “I think a lot of people have a lot of pride in their institutions, all over the Southeast Conference and all over the country. I think people love football in the Southeast. I think whether it’s high school football, where that can be the social center of the community.

“I know that sports tied our town together when I was growing up in Monongah, West Virginia. The last guy turned the lights out ’cause everybody went to the game. Everybody went to the football game on Friday night. Everybody went to the basketball games. I mean, they closed the pool room. They closed the (spot) where we used to play pinball and played cards all night. They closed all those places because everybody went to the game.

“So why is that so important to people? They love sports, people identify with competition. A lot of the principles and values that make you a good player in sports, whether it’s pride in performance, personal discipline, your ability to sustain effort and toughness and persevere, overcome adversity – but it’s been a part of our society since back in the Greek days. That’s why it’s important.”

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