Clemson’s powerful football coach fumbles on coronavirus

Many American college football coaches have been speaking out about the importance of listening to official instructions about the coronavirus and its resulting COVID-19 illness — instructions like washing hands and staying home whenever possible.

Clemson University head coach Dabo Swinney seems to be bucking the trend. Not only has he not released a public service announcement (PSA) asking people to stay home, but he has openly discussed his own vacation travel and plans, as Dennis Dodd described on CBSSports.com:

“The coach also noted that his family has traveled once to Florida via private plane for vacation and may do so [again] for Easter. ‘The plane was sanitized,’ he said. ‘We don’t have any concern.’”

Coach Swinney’s commentary and actions not only put himself and his family at risk, but also all of the people he interacts with in his travels. It is unclear if the coach has followed South Carolina’s recommended two-week quarantine post travel.

He has also put his fans at risk.

Prominent sports figures become figureheads in a new sense in moments of disaster. They are, as known and trusted figures for fans, a voice to be listened to in uncertain times. Other coaches have used this to their and their state’s and university’s advantage, putting out PSAs, tweets, and media interviews calling on people to follow instructions related to COVID-19, including staying home and sheltering in place.

Louisiana State University Head Coach Ed Orgeron (otherwise known as Coach O) was one of the first to put out such a PSA, with the state of Louisiana and tweeted by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on March 14. As the governor put it: “When Coach O speaks, we all listen.”

Other American college football figures have followed suit. Among just a few of them, Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban and Alabama Football released one on March 24. Minnesota Head Coach P.J. Fleck spoke with Pat McAfee, a sports analyst, on March 26 about getting through tough times, followed by a message on March 31 from Coach Fleck and his wife thanking people for practicing social distancing and listening to official orders and thanking first responders. Pennsylvania State University Head Coach James Franklin and PSU Football released a PSA on March 28 with his daughters Addy and Shola, noting that “while we were all disappointed to have to press pause on the sporting world, we know it’s the right choice.”

Such actions demonstrate the awareness of prominent sports figures, like American college football coaches, of the impact their words. They reveal the knowledge that teams, athletic departments, and universities have about the importance of messages like these for fans and people in their communities. While for some sports may seem like an insignificant issue in such complex and fraught times, for fans they can be a source of solace and something joyful to look forward to.

No, American college football coaches are not often official government spokespersons, although Coach O has participated in a Louisiana government COVID-19 press conference to drive the point home, nor are they disease, health, or disaster experts. But they are prominent members of their communities and people may listen to what they say either because fans are more likely to hear from them than other sources, depending on their media consumption, or may weigh their words more strongly as a pre-COVID-19 known and trusted figure.

If fans see American college football head coaches and other prominent sports figures following the instructions of universities and local, state, and federal governments, they may be more likely to do so themselves or to feel reassured that other people they recognize are taking their own protective steps. Prominent sports figures can draw attention to key issues in times of disaster. COVID-19 is not the first time college football has been involved in sharing disaster information or disaster responses, and it certainly will not be the last.

If fans see head football coaches refusing to comply with instructions related to COVID-19, they may feel that following these guidelines is less serious or less important than it really is. The words and actions of sports figures matter in times like these.

Jennifer Trivedi is a core faculty member at the Disaster Research Center and assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware. She is the author of the forthcoming book “Mississippi after Katrina: Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction on the Gulf Coast.” Follow her on Twitter @JenniferTrivedi.

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