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Michigan State Played Football This Fall, But Nothing Felt Normal On Saturdays

Jenison Fieldhouse
Ryan Collins

The pandemic has changed everything for home football Saturday’s in East Lansing and on-campus. It’s quieter, less energetic, and lower traffic in many different ways.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -  Most fall Saturdays around East Lansing encompass the same formula for a lot people: tailgating, football, and cider. 

This fall looked a lot different, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Michigan State’s campus. Sports also were gone, only leaving fanless football games at Spartan Stadium. No tailgating allowed, no Saturday mornings filled with Spartans gathering to support MSU.

The pandemic completely reconstructed what game days looked, felt, and sounded like in East Lansing this fall.

“It’s really weird waking up on Saturday mornings,” said Michigan State senior Joey Manganiello. “To wake up without some random fraternity blaring music is weirdly alarming.”

The ritual of tailgating is a tradition that generations of Michigan State alumni and students have shared in. The East Lansing community has a buzz, as people fill restaurants, bars, and houses preparing for Michigan State football to take the field. 

Traditions and get-togethers went by the due to the pandemic…but when the Big Ten conference announced there would be football this year, some people around East Lansing thought maybe that would give a sense of normalcy.

It hasn’t.

Football is being played, but the fans are removed from it. MSU does not allow tailgating on campus, and Spartan Stadium is empty from its suites to the upper levels of the student sections.

“It’s nice to have something to watch but the stakes feel way lower than usual,” said Manganiello. “With nobody on campus the games this year almost didn’t feel real.”

Losing 75,000 ticketed fans and thousands more coming to East Lansing every week for game days affected local businesses’ bottom lines.

“I’d say game day crowds are down about 80 to 90 percent,” said Peanut Barrel owner Joe Bell. “All and all you’d have to say our football Saturday business is down about 85 percent compared to when things were normal.” 

Peanut Barrel, an East Lansing staple since 1974, has been able to survive throughout the pandemic, as loyal customers have utilized the restaurant’s outside dining and takeout menu. 

“Our patio has been open and that’s been a success,” said Bell. “There has been interest even with the cold weather.”

Peanut Barrel’s patio has room for 30 customers, seated at seven tables. They are all safely socially distanced, to follow health guidelines. The patio is still open as it has gotten colder, with heaters and offering customers blankets for people willing to brave being outside for a drink. 

When Michigan State football opened the season against Rutgers on Oct. 24, students and locals around the area tried to fill the void of tailgating by getting to restaurants and bars early and staying throughout the game. 

"It’s not like no one is coming to town,” said Bell. “People in town are still coming out walking the streets, I don’t know where they're going but you’ll still see people in those green and white overalls.”

This trend unfortunately for restaurants and bars in the East Lansing area has dwindled due to the spike in COVID-19 cases in the past two months. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer placed a current executive order that temporarily banned inside dining. 

Losing indoor dining spaces has led to more creativity from places like the Peanut Barrel. They are utilizing their takeout business during game days and other usual bar nights, especially the ability to sell alcohol for takeout.

“Alcohol to-go is legal and welcomed to us and many others in the business, and we're taking advantage of it to the best we can,” said Bell. “We’ve developed this thing called a survival kit during the pandemic, one item on that menu is a growler of long islands with four peanut barrel glasses which has been a hit.”

Even with these adjustments by places like the Peanut Barrel, it’s obviously still been hard on businesses and they will need to stay creative and find ways to make it out alive.

While small businesses are part of fabric of game days in East Lansing, so is the school spirit and organizations that devote a part of their life to Saturdays in the fall.

“Normal game days were honestly so crazy, people wanted to take pictures with us, everybody would yell go green, the energy is just so crazy,” said senior MSU cheerleader Grace Mackey. “As soon as you walked into that stadium it’s such an unreal feeling it’s something you can’t even describe, and to not enjoy that feeling as a senior has been tough.”

When the Big Ten announced its plans to return to play, universities weren’t allowed have any outside spectators: which included marching bands, cheerleaders, dancers, and mascots. 

MSU Police
Credit Ryan Collins
MSU Police barricades usually in use for game days.

This move by the conference is not something that has been universal across college football. Cheerleaders and marching bands are on display in conferences like the SEC and the ACC.

Cheerleaders, mascots, and marching bands are a part of pageantry that makes college football so special, and they big role in what game days look like especially around Michigan State and East Lansing.

“We don’t just have to prepare to perform at the game,” said senior MSU cheerleader Olivia Duffy. “We make appearances at events like Big Ten tailgates, family tailgates, and we perform by the Sparty statue as the players walk to the stadium, it’s a full day.”

These activities have been cut to completely nothing for members of the MSU cheer team. No events, no practices, nothing for at least for the remainder of the fall semester. Like most non-revenue athletics, it’s unclear if MSU cheerleading will have a national championship through the pandemic.  

The Universal Cheerleaders Association has already pushed back its national championship for cheer and dance until April 27-28 and it’s unclear if universities will even send teams to the event. 

“We’re still pushing for us to practice because nationals got moved to April when usually they're in January, and we obviously would want to prepare for that,” said Mackey. “We’ve also heard from our coach that three teams had already pulled out from nationals, so at this point we don’t even know if we're going to have nationals.” 

With restrictions on the cheerleaders not being able to be in stadiums and arenas MSU athletics doesn't feel the need to spend the money testing the team daily right now.

Like many athletes, the opportunity to go out their terms was taken by the virus. Being both seniors, Duffy and Mackey will never get another opportunity to step on Spartan Stadium as an active MSU cheerleader.

“Our senior day was supposed to be in front of a full stadium, getting our names announced in front of our families,” said Duffy.

As the Spartans hosted Ohio State in Spartan Stadium for MSU football’s senior day Nov. 5, like all season cheerleaders weren’t allowed to be in attendance. 

Luckily seniors of the cheer and dance program were able to get some sense of closure, as MSU hosted both program’s seniors for a private ceremony in Spartan Stadium in mid-December. 

“It was mostly bittersweet,” said Duffy. “It was a goodbye but mostly a reminder of all the things we didn’t get to do this year.

That bittersweet feeling is shared by many students who stayed in the East Lansing area for the fall semester. It was magnified every Saturday this fall of what the things this virus had taken from them. 

“I just miss being able to walk on campus,” said Manganiello. “You just don’t feel like you're in college, especially on Saturdays.”


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