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Midweek Musing: College Coaches, COVID-19, and Cash

Mike Gundy made waves earlier this week when he spoke out about his goal to have his players report May 1st.

NCAA Football: Kansas at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

“Stick to Sports.”

It’s been a common refrain in these divisive times, as athletes take more ownership of their personal brands and more public statements in order to further their personal goals and beliefs.

I hate the phrase, to be honest. I can’t get behind a sentiment that basically distills people down to one dimension, just because they happen to be extremely gifted in an area. And frankly, it’s hard to find people more capable of impacting society than those involved with athletics at the highest level. Often, athletes are criticized for speaking on things that aren’t well-versed in, but you only need to troll Aunt Edna’s Facebook to see that speaking on things we aren’t truly educated on is a common practice these days. So, as a general rule, I am all for people with a platform using said platform to get a message out to the masses.

As said “as a general rule” for a reason, though.

If athletes are put on a pedestal in this country, then football players are demi-gods, especially in certain parts of these United States. And if the players are demi-gods, then the coaches are downright mighty, elevated to the highest level of honor amongst kings. College football coaches, especially in certain states, are often the highest-paid employees and most venerable citizens, and thus, when they speak, people listen.

Two such coaches are Dabo Swinney, who outside of Nick Saban, might be the biggest name in college football, what with a couple of championships to his name and no sign of slowing down, and Mike Gundy, who — though less successful than his fellow public university neighbor — might be more famous, with his big personality, penchant for saying the darndest things, and a legendary mullet. Swinney is the second-highest paid football coach in the college ranks, and his university has racked up millions of dollars in debt (against future earnings) that students are paying down to the tune of nearly $1,500 a person. That fact didn’t help him a few days ago, when he spoke out against a potential delay to the college football season, saying “I have zero doubt [we’re going to play]. This is America, man. We’ve stormed the beaches of Normandy. We’ve sent a car and drove around on Mars. We walked on the moon. This is the greatest country and greatest people in the history of the planet. We’ve created an iPhone. I can sit here and talk to all you people and all these different places. We got the smartest people in the world. Listen, we’re going to rise up and kick this thing right in the teeth.”

But remind me, was that before or after he talked about sanitizing his private plane before taking a vacation to Florida? And where did his PSA to tell people to stay home fit in the timeline?

Gundy didn’t fare any better when he spoke, giving one of the most tone-deaf and potentially harmful interviews that any public figure has done, with the money line being “in my opinion, if we have to bring our players back, test them. They’re all in good shape. They’re all 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22-year-olds. They’re healthy. A lot of them can fight it off with their natural body, the antibodies and the build that they have.”

Before you get our the pitchforks, there is a BIG if there... but that is somewhat negated by this quote: “There’s some people that are asymptomatic. If that’s true, then we sequester them. And people say that’s crazy. No, it’s not crazy because we need to continue and budget and run money through the state of Oklahoma.”

So, just to be sure, let’s run it back: Mike Gundy wants to bring his football team back (aiming for a May 1st start date!) because, in his opinion, they’re young and healthy enough to fight off the virus but really it comes down to the fact that Oklahoma needs money.

Mike, hate to break it to ya, but Coronavirus isn’t a rattlesnake and you can’t just cut off its head.

There are so many issues here — for one, the thought that because you are young and healthy, you’ll probably be just fine if you get sick! — is patently false. Talk to the spring breakers from UT that got sick and see how they’re feeling under the throes of this debilitating respiratory disease. It’s a dangerous sentiment to share, and one that is far too prevalent already — it’s not just that young people can get sick — AND DIE — from COVID-19, but it’s also the litany of vulnerable people that they can spread the disease to when they are asymptomatic. And let’s talk about quarantining the “sick and not showing it”, another one of his bold ideas — for one, just because it works for the flu during football season doesn’t mean it will work here, and two, you’ve told a bunch of kids that this virus isn’t that big of a deal (in that you’ve brought them back to play football) and now you are convinced that they are going to stay home and away from others? A bunch of 18-23 year old young men? Anyone that has been on a campus where mono makes a run knows how hard that is to put into practice.

That brings us to another point — Mike Gundy wants to buck medical orders and state recommendations for one reason and one reason only: to make money for the state of Oklahoma. It reeks of greed and misplaced priorities, and would be putting thousands of lives on the line at campuses across the country just so that someone’s bottom line wouldn’t suffer. We are seeing this line of thinking in so many ways across the country — put the vulnerable at risk for the sake of the bank account, or rely on the un or underpaid labor to line someone else’s pockets. It’s sickening.

“At some point, we’ve got to go back to work. ...From what I read, the healthy people can fight this, the antibodies make it better. They’re doing some blood transplants now with the people that have already gotten the disease, that have gotten over it that have the antibodies that can fight it. There’s a lot of people who can figure this out.”

We all hope that there are a lot of people that can figure it out, and we all want nothing more than to go back to work, to get back to normal, to do the things we love to do with the people we love to do with them. And while it’s not the most important part of the equation, college football is certainly one of those things.

But bringing back football players, football games, sporting events... it isn’t the most important thing right now. And powerful figures like Mike Gundy trying to make it so isn’t doing anyone any good. “I’m not taking away from the danger of people getting sick. You have the virus, stay healthy, try to do what we can to help people that are sick. And we’re losing lives, which is just terrible. The second part of it is that we still have to schedule and continue to move forward as life goes on and help those people.”

Life goes on. It does. It is. But why should we put more people at risk for the sake of a game? The world will never be the same after this, we know that. And it will take years for this country and others to catch up from the start financial cost of this virus and its impact on society.

But shouldn’t we focus on the fact that people are sick and people are dying and let that be the only thing we are worried about right now? We don’t need our coaches and our athletes — anyone, for that matter — worried about their thing when we all need to be worried about OUR thing. This isn’t the time to be pushing getting back to “normal”, whatever “normal” is going to be. It should be about dealing in the here and now, and putting the future on pause. It’s all we can do, because we don’t really know anything.

It isn’t all bad, out in the world of college athletics, though. Reigning National Champion Ed Orgeron went viral with his stay home PSA, and our own Gary Patterson just recently made a sizable donation to those financially affected by the virus. Athletes from across sports have given their time and resources to aid in the fight, and are connecting with fans in fun and unique ways across social media. For every personal trainer whining about not being able to go about their business, there is someone doing something to positively impact change. For every person saying something stupid, there are a hundred more trying to do the right thing.

If we do want college football back, and we do want a return to normalcy, we can’t talk about bringing student-athletes back to campus. We have to do our part to stay home (unless you have to go into work, in which case bless you and stay well), practice social distancing, and wash our damn hands.

And hope for the best. That’s all we have.