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Opinion: Poor leadership and secrecy define problems in SEC, Big 12

They can do better.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Florida Gainesville Sun-USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s been a weird year, and a weird college football season to this point. On a week-to-week basis we’ve seen cancellations due to the coronavirus impact the ACC, SEC, Big 12, and other conferences.

While some of the outbreaks can be chalked up to bad luck, more often than not there’s been a lack of leadership, a lack of taking the virus seriously that has contributed to the rising case numbers.

Foolishness in Florida

After Florida lost 41-38 at Texas A&M last Saturday, Gators head coach Dan Mullen was mad about the Aggies having a big crowd that impacted the game. The environment at Texas A&M was certainly rowdy, with a lack of social distancing, a mass amount of people too close together, not a lot of mask wearing. The type of environment public health officials warn people to avoid in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mullen wasn’t mad about the lack of health protocols, he was mad that his Gators don’t have a full capacity stadium. “I certainly hope our university administration follows our governor, that we’re allowed to pack The Swamp, that we have 90,000 in The Swamp to have the home-field advantage that Texas A&M had today,” Mullen said. Florida’s athletic director dismissed Mullen’s comments, and it’s worth noting that the NFL, who has three teams in the state of Florida, hasn’t taken governor Ron DeSantis up on his full capacity offer, instead listening to the advice of scientists and doctors. A full capacity stadium isn’t reality, yet that’s what Mullen was worried about fighting for just days before their outbreak was announced.

Florida is now facing a coronavirus outbreak on the team, their game against LSU on Saturday has been postponed. At the time of publishing, Florida now has 21 positive cases on the team, with another dozen players in quarantine. The positive case total could go up from here.

Mullen has since apologized for his comments, but not for the right reason. Saying you apologize “if I offended people or anybody out there” is usually an apology that doesn’t carry much weight. It doesn’t send the message that Mullen understands what it will take to reverse course and limit the spread of the virus within his program. Mullen’s just one guy, but as the head coach his comments carry weight. And when he lobbies for a full capacity stadium, do you expect all of the people within the program to take the virus as seriously as they should?

Testing secrecy

The University of Michigan athletics department releases coronavirus testing data each week, but you’d be hard-pressed to find the same standard across the SEC and Big 12. In an ESPN survey last month, 21 schools within the ACC, SEC, and Big 12 declined to provide COVID-19 test data. In the same survey, Michigan was one of just 10 programs that “answered all survey questions pertaining to testing volume, the number of positive results, hospitalizations and whether any athletes had tested positive for post COVID-19 heart conditions.”

Then you have programs like the Oklahoma Sooners who are following an all too common pattern of secrecy in a year where transparency is paramount. Last month, The Athletic’s Jason Kersey reported that Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley told the media he decided to start treating coronavirus testing data like injuries when it comes to public disclosure. “Just like we would with an injury, we’ve made the decision to not broadcast that,” Riley said. “We’ve been probably the most transparent school in the country up until then but you don’t want to give your team a competitive disadvantage. So, we’re not going to do that.” Riley is incorrect on two fronts. Oklahoma wasn’t one of the most transparent schools, and when it comes to public health and safety, any type of concern about ‘competitive advantage’ should be thrown out the window. Riley’s rationale is one that can hide testing and lead to an outbreak. It isn’t fair to his players or opposing teams. How can Riley or Oklahoma be trusted to mitigate the spread and make sure a game on Saturday doesn’t turn into a super-spreader event?

The lack of transparency is troubling. They tell us ‘we’re all in this together’, and it’s time for all conferences to start acting like it. Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin acknowledged his team is now dealing with coronavirus issues, but didn’t shed any more light on the subject, instead saying “Just like injuries, we’re not going to get into details on that,” Kiffin said. “We’re just trying to manage it the best we can.” Coaches like Kiffin would be wise to stop treating the coronavirus in the same way they’d treat a star player having a sprained ankle. Not getting into the details about an injury is understandable, being secretive about testing is not.

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron claimed that most of his team has already been infected with the virus. On the surface that sounds absolutely awful, but Orgeron meant it in a positive way, that his team has herd immunity. Yeah, it still sounds awful. That’s where we’re at, folks. We have programs that have no interest in releasing data (it took a freedom of information act request for Georgia to release data), we have coaches like Riley who worry about competitive disadvantages, and we have Mullen who cares more about a maximum capacity loud crowd than he does that same crowd’s health and safety. This is a mess. This mess doesn’t mean the season is in jeopardy of ending, it doesn’t mean each individual action led to an outbreak. However, what the above instances do mean is there has been a level of secrecy and a lack of leadership by a lot of men holding power and influence.

Take Florida State for instance, who had a player that said he was lied to multiple times about the health conditions of other players, as well as his own. Receiver Warren Thompson said he was ridiculed about speaking up. Until conferences force programs to release data, stories like Thompson’s will continue to arise, data will be skewed or hidden, and leadership won’t be at the level it needs to be.

As far as Michigan’s concerned, they’ve been one of the most forthcoming athletic departments with their testing data, and head coach Jim Harbaugh has made keeping his team safe the biggest point of emphasis possible. While some other teams in the conference were facing facility shutdowns due to the virus, Michigan recorded no positive cases for over a month. Michigan aside, albeit a program other conferences can learn a thing or two from, the Big Ten and Michigan can also see the mistakes the SEC and Big 12 have made and not follow the same patterns of stupidity.

It’s important to note there are players, coaches, and administrators taking the current issues very seriously in the conferences mentioned, and it isn’t unrealistic to think the Big Ten will have an outbreak somewhere along the way. But are the SEC and Big 12 collectively trying their best? The answer to that question is a resounding no. They can do better.