Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey reportedly sent a strongly worded memo last week to conference coaches and athletics directors threatening fines and possible suspensions for those who do not follow COVID-19 protocols.
Hopefully, Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen will be the first to get hammered with a heavy fine and/or suspension for his incredibly irresponsible comments following Saturday’s defenseless 41-38 loss to coach Jimbo Fisher’s No. 21-ranked Texas A&M Aggies.
Mullen, commenting on the effect Texas A&M’s announced crowd of 24,709 had on the game, said UF’s administration needs to lift its COVID-19 crowd constraints, follow Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Phase 3 reopening guidelines and allow UF to pack the Swamp for its next home game.
“The crowd was certainly a factor in the game,” Mullen said of Texas A&M’s fans. “I know our governor passed that rule so certainly, hopefully the UF administration decides to let us pack the Swamp against LSU — 100% — because that crowd was certainly a factor in the game. I certainly hope our administration follows the governor. The governor has passed a rule that we’re allowed to pack the Swamp and have 90,000 in the Swamp to give us the home-field advantage Texas A&M had today.”
When I asked Mullen a follow-up question just to clarify his previous comments, he doubled down on his ill-considered stance.
“Absolutely I want to see 90,000 at the Swamp,” Mullen said. “The section behind our bench (today), I didn’t see an empty seat. It was packed; the entire student section; must have been 50,000 people behind our bench going crazy. Hopefully, that will create a home-field advantage for us next week because we’ve passed a law in our state that allows us to do that.”
Thankfully, it appears, UF’s administration is not on board with Mullen’s opinion. Florida Gators athletics director Scott Stricklin told me via text message Saturday, “We continue to follow UF Health and campus guidelines. I’ve not heard anything about campus adjusting (its) guidelines.”
I get that Mullen was frustrated after UF lost again to the Gator Killer himself — Texas A&M’s Fisher, who now has an 8-1 record against Florida dating to his heyday at Florida State. While TV commentators did suggest Texas A&M seemingly had more than the announced attendance at the game and, clearly, fans were packed-in together in certain seating sections, does anybody really believe No. 4 UF’s first loss of the season had anything to do with the crowd?
The Gators didn’t lose because of Texas A&M’s fans; they lost because of their own defense. Texas A&M’s fans aren’t the reason the Gators yielded 543 yards on Saturday. Texas A&M’s fans aren’t the reason Aggies QB Kellen Mond completed 25 of 35 passes for 335 yards and three TDs and converted 12-of-15 third-down conversions. Texas A&M’s fans aren’t the reason Aggies running back Isaiah Spiller gashed and gutted the Gators for 174 yards on 27 carries with two TDs. Texas A&M’s fans aren’t the reason UF’s defense is giving up an average of 495 yards and 33.3 points during three games this season and allowing the opposition to convert on 59% of third downs and 75% of fourth downs.
And Texas A&M’s fans certainly aren’t the reason that UF running back Malik Davis fumbled late in the game when the Gators could have easily driven down and converted their own game-winning field goal.
This is why it’s totally inexplicable and inexcusable that Mullen chose the aftermath of this defensive meltdown to go all-in on his insistence that an institution of higher learning should follow the lead of politicians instead of public health and UF’s own medical experts when making decisions about safety precautions during a deadly pandemic.
Sorry, but home-field advantage is not as important as potentially saving lives. And when you pack 90,000 fans like sardines into a crowded football stadium where they are yelling and screaming and spitting into the air, you have the makings of a COVID-19 superspreader event.
Seriously, does Mullen want to turn Gator football games into a carefree COVID party on the White House lawn?
Let’s just be grateful that those who run our sporting leagues are taking this pandemic more seriously than some of our politicians. Mullen said Florida “passed a law” allowing stadiums to operate at full capacity, which is not exactly accurate. DeSantis announced Phase 3 of Florida’s reopening in mid-September, which included lifting all restrictions on businesses in the state. Earlier this week, a spokesperson for DeSantis let it be known the state would do doing nothing to prevent any of Florida’s sports teams from packing their venues.
“Sports franchises can do as they please, they don’t need clearance from the state,” Cody McCloud, press secretary for the governor’s office, told Miami radio host Andy Slater earlier this week.
Thankfully, it seems, all of the state’s sports teams are ignoring the advice of our governor. The Miami Dolphins said last week that, despite the governor’s stance, they will continue to allow a maximum of just 13,000 socially distanced fans into 65,000-seat Hard Rock Stadium this season.
“We’ll continue to follow CDC guidelines and put everyone’s safety first,” Dolphins CEO Tom Garfinkel said in a statement. “… Right now, with (COVID-19) positivity rates where they are, we feel that we can keep people safe in a socially-distanced environment.”
Are you listening, Dan Mullen?
Sometimes, we need to check ourselves and make decisions based on what is morally right and not what is legally allowed.
(Mike Bianchi is a sports columnist for the Orlando Sentinel)
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