This week, as the CDC advises against Thanksgiving travel in a week when the coronavirus rate has soared to a peak of 200,000 cases and 2,000 deaths a day, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is mad as hell.
He’s been ducked! Disrespected! And disappointed to learn that there are those in the world, even the world of college football, who are not putting football first.
Florida State canceled a meeting with the No. 4 Tigers after assessing that its opponent was playing a little too fast and loose with COVID protocols designed to keep humans from transmitting a virus that has killed more than 256,000 Americans. That number includes at least one college football player, Jamain Stephens. Hundreds of college players have caught the coronavirus, including Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
“This game was not canceled because of COVID. COVID was just an excuse to cancel the game,” churled Swinney.
At issue, Clemson allowed a symptomatic player to practice all week, and when that player finally tested positive on gameday, Swinney was outraged that FSU balked. Perhaps FSU didn’t think it was smart to have a player practice all week with a runny nose, even if he didn’t formally test positive. But with proof the player had coronavirus and had practiced and traveled with Clemson, FSU made the right call. In a pandemic. With a campus to protect.
Some things are bigger than a college football game.
Swinney has $9.3 million reasons per year to invent some convoluted coronavirus protocol that keeps players on the field whether they are exposed, symptomatic, or should be isolating, according to CDC guidelines. And of course it is deeply upsetting when some other coach peers into the Swinney public health fishbowl and wants no part of it.
“We listened to our medical folks and their assessment of the risk and we decided it wasn’t safe to play today,” said Florida State athletic director David Coburn in an interview with the Associated Press.
The outrage! Swinney demanded money! A forfeit! That FSU coach Mike Norvell spin all the straw into gold and name his firstborn “Dabo.” Swinney must feel judged by a peer like first-year coach Norvell, who isn’t dependent on Swinney for a paycheck or a scholarship.
The inherent inequity of college football gives coaches more control over other humans than is right, and the money that comes to them alters university priorities in ways that encourage Swinney’s defiance.
And players like Lawrence back their rationale, pre-positive test, with his #WeWantToPlay campaign. It’s great that players want to play. I want to see my relatives for Thanksgiving. I also don’t want to see them on a ventilator. Those things are not unconnected.
And that’s why playing during a pandemic is so dangerous. Swinney can listen to a crank like Scott Atlas, the neuroradiology professor who supplanted Dr. Anthony Fauci’s influence on the coronavirus task force. Atlas tells powerful people what they want to hear. He called for college football to get back on the field, and, in an interview with Fox News, backed Lawrence’s contention that college football would do really well managing the virus.
“[Players] couldn’t get a better and safer environment, no matter what environment you’re from,” Atlas said in August.
To see how well that is going, scroll down this list from The Buffalo News that tracks each covid case associated with college football.
So far, according to list keeper and enterprise reporter Rachel Lenzi, 120 of 130 FBS schools have registered a positive case. It’s hard to know exactly how many players have caught the coronavirus, but it is likely hundreds. Few schools are transparent about exact numbers.
College football has been turned into essentially a science experiment.
Of course, players could opt out. And I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that a clerical error is responsible for erasing this Cal player’s scholarship after he opted out of the football season at Cal due to health concerns.
Follow the money. Clemson as an educational institution needs The Swinney Federal Loan & Trust to keep the ATMs open. The NCAA has all but vacated its position as a health and safety organization holding schools accountable. The football conferences want that sweet, sweet network money. The networks are cheerleading these pot-holed schedules with nearly 30 percent canceled due to outbreaks that depleted rosters.
Reminder: Swinney once threatened to quit coaching if the players were paid.
The whole enterprise of college football is rotting, and the pandemic is exposing how hollow it is. “Team first” apparently means your team’s ability to play above all other considerations, rather than seeing a local community as a team, or expanding your idea of teamwork beyond a discrete and direct circle of benefits.
Let’s address the “They’ll be fine” crowd. Most of these players, coaches, and staff members who have been infected in conjunction with college football are fine. Several, and we don’t have good information on this yet because it is such a new virus, may deal with heart issues that stem from those infections. Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez left the season with this, and we just don’t get that kind of information about college players, so it is difficult to know how many are afflicted and to what degree.
But beyond any college team is a campus and a community, and here is where Atlas is misguided.
Like a Trump rally, a college football game with fans or watch parties have potential public health consequences. Lawrence recovered easily, thank goodness, but any case could lead to a chain of transmission that leads to someone with an underlying condition and no insurance, or an elderly person, or even a 14-year-old girl who was not able to get well. Not every community has access to care like the players on a Division I football team often enjoy, particularly poor communities of color.
College football doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and a mindset that puts the sport first can also put communities at unnecessary risk. Pro sports have shown that there are ways to responsibly approach a season, but coaches have to actually believe in the science of masks and transmission.
Instead, college football has been an example of the very worst sports have to offer.
So as many of us wrestle with how to responsibly approach this holiday season, don’t follow Swinney’s example. Think about others in your family and community, follow the public health guidance, know your risks, and that to those you care about. We are in this together.