Since we began shutting down sports a little more than a week ago, the college football world has fallen quiet.
Spring practice is canceled. Players have gone home. There’s a tense uncertainty, as in all areas of life right now, about when business as usual will resume.
But more college football coaches should step up and join LSU’s Ed Orgeron on the front line of public awareness on how to slow the COVID-19 pandemic, because only college football coaches have the ability to deliver a message that will scare everyone straight: If we don’t get this thing under control, the 2020 season could be in trouble.
Is that dramatic? Yes. But for a lot of people who are still resistant to the idea of social distancing during these crucial days and weeks ahead, it might be the only threat that sinks in.
It also happens to be true.
While most of us are under the impression that things will generally return to normal this summer and the college football season will kick off on schedule, the lack of certainty about what the country is going to look like in August and September is the elephant in the room for every athletics director.
As even SEC commissioner Greg Sankey acknowledged this week on a conference call with reporters, it’s almost impossible in our new reality to have certainty about anything that far into the future.
“I’m a half-full perspective person, so I have optimism,” Sankey said about the prospect of playing a full 2020 football season on time. “We’re going to have a period of time to see what happens with the growth of these cases and we’ll make decisions down the road.”
But that’s where coaches have an opportunity to make a real impact. The message is simple, direct and easy to digest: Slowing the spread of COVID-19, and thus having a football season, depends on everyone complying with social distancing. In certain parts of the country, having that public service announcement come from a college football coach would reach a whole bunch more people than a politician or a doctor could.
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That’s why the state of Louisiana, smartly, enlisted Orgeron to go on billboards and social media and attend news conferences, urging people to do what’s necessary to flatten the curve. While it’s hard to quantify how much good Orgeron’s efforts have done for the people in his home state, it’s not a stretch to suggest that he’s literally saving lives.
The question now is why more of his peers aren’t using their platforms to do the same.
Todd Berry, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, told USA Today Sports his organization decided against pushing a large-scale awareness effort and instead is deferring to conferences and campuses for how to message.
“I think that’s a very personal thing in relation to what you think if you’re called to do that,” Berry said.
That’s understandable, as the AFCA is going to be an important clearinghouse for a lot of new issues and questions that have popped up as a result of this unprecedented situation.
But coaches have an opportunity to really make a difference on this one, and it’s a little bit disappointing that so many have faded into the background over the last week. Going through the social media feeds of the top coaches and programs, you’d have a hard time getting a sense that there was a national emergency going on.
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No coronavirus messages from Alabama’s Nick Saban or Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, the two towering figures of the sport. Nothing from Florida’s Dan Mullen, Oregon’s Mario Cristobal, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly or Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher.
Georgia put together a 2-minute, 21-second video full of dramatic music appealing to “a greater mission that extends beyond sport alone,” but it doesn’t feature any personal appeal from Kirby Smart for people to stay home.
Ohio State’s Ryan Day and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley have both put out PSA videos, and Riley on Saturday tweeted a picture of himself in what appeared to be a workout from his home as part of a “Play inside, play for the world” campaign affiliated with Nike. Minnesota football on Friday tweeted a video of coach P.J. Fleck encouraging people to wash their hands, practice social distancing and stay home.
The point isn’t to be critical of these guys if they haven’t done anything coronavirus-related. Football coaches usually prefer to stay in their lane.
But it’s also very clear that they have a ton of power to amplify a message that is currently going unused.
Maybe the possibility of COVID-19 impacting the college football season hasn’t completely set in even for them yet. As Berry noted, most of the questions and conversations among coaches have been centered around whether they’ll get some type of practice time back this summer as a result of cancelled spring drills. As of now, the idea that the season itself may be at stake is more a back-of-the-mind concern.
“I don’t think anyone can guarantee 100% on anything at this point in time,” Berry said. “We have to plan for different outcomes.”
But as a society, it can only help if we start connecting some of these dots, starting now. The preventative actions taken by people in the next few days are going to have a cascading effect on public health several weeks and months into the future. The sooner we all buy into that, the sooner we can have certainty that football comes back when it’s supposed to.
That’s an easy message for coaches to start hammering — if only they will pick up the bullhorn and buy into it themselves.