The NFL finally had a COVID-19 hiccup, postponing the Pittsburgh Steelers–Tennessee Titans game from Sunday until later next week. It’s the first game that has been impacted by the pandemic, as the result of at least nine people in the Titans organization testing positive for the virus.
In response, the league is upping the ante on its disciplinary measures for coaches who have ignored the in-game mask protocols. Six-figure fines previously had been doled out, but coaches can take that hit, so many of them chose to ignore the rules and not wear the masks. Now, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the NFL has sent a memo to all franchises saying it will “address lack of compliance with accountability measures that may include … suspensions and/or forfeiture of draft picks.” (Titans coach Mike Vrabel has been notably out of mask compliance.)
Clearly, this is a league that is serious about enforcing the protocols it established in conjunction with medical experts.
In college football? Not so serious. There is no evidence that any conference currently playing really cares what anyone does on the sidelines.
At the college level, where 22 games have been postponed or canceled and some teams have played games without dozens of players, there are no known fines for noncompliance with mask rules. Not for coaches, and not for institutions. Perhaps that’s why the protocols established have been routinely ignored.
College football damn near didn’t have a season, basically pushing through misgivings and resistance by promising rigorous testing and following whatever guidelines were established. The teams would listen to the doctors and health experts—that’s what conference and school leaders said over and over, all summer.
Not everyone listened. Not by a long shot. Turn on just about any game Saturday and you’ll see as much, on vivid display. But there is no tangible disincentive coming from the conference leadership level, which brings into question exactly how much they care about anything other than getting games played.
The Atlantic Coast Conference did send a memo from commissioner John Swofford to member schools after the first weekend of play. The memo congratulated everyone on playing and pointed out some adjustments to in-game protocols. The two that dealt with COVID-19 safety issues were postgame gatherings and sideline mask-wearing.
The ACC asked teams to basically wave at each other from their own side of the field instead of commingling without masks, which was largely the case after Miami played UAB in its season opener. The league also said that wearing masks on the sideline “remains imperative”, and said it is the responsibility of athletic directors and head coaches “to ensure 100% compliance.” Swofford also said game officials were told not to communicate with coaches on the sideline who weren’t wearing their masks.
So the league at least took that step. But after three weeks of play there are no existing sanctions for those who choose not to follow the rules.
Same is true in the Southeastern Conference, which is just one game into the season. Commissioner Greg Sankey sent what an SEC official termed a “healthy reminder” to schools this week, but there has been no mention of a financial penalty. This is a league that fines member schools $50,000 for a field or court storming first offense, with escalating penalties up to $250,000 on the third offense.
Hopefully the healthy reminder reached the desk of the Coach of the Moment in the SEC, Mississippi State’s Mike Leach. He had little to no use for a mask during his debut game as coach of the Bulldogs, a smashing upset of LSU. Leach was asked about it by The New York Times and said, “I try to do my best with it, but once you’re six feet apart, I can’t help but wonder if some of this is an homage to politicians.”
Actually, the recommendations to wear the mask start with the nation’s top health experts. From Dr. Anthony Fauci to the CDC and beyond, the baseline recommendation for curtailing the spread of the virus is wearing a mask in public settings. That’s not political talk; that’s doctor talk.
Coaches have said that they can’t be heard by players or officials if they are wearing their masks. That argument rings hollow in stadiums that are roughly 100 times more quiet than they are in normal seasons, and it runs counter to all the other people in all walks of life that we have seen communicating effectively through a mask in recent months.
(The number of coaches and other sideline personnel who aren’t complying with mask edicts, or who look miserably uncomfortable while complying, seems to indicate who isn’t bothering wearing masks at practice when nobody is looking. When tasked with doing so in public—during a game—this is clearly something many aren’t accustomed to.)
The most common response to the medical protocols in place is that college-age people don’t become seriously ill. Not many do, but there are exceptions—some of them tragic. And there is a wide world beyond the football bubble where players can spread the disease.
Another common response to observations about coaches and others not wearing masks is that everyone on the field produced a negative test the previous day. That doesn’t make the situation airtight. Ask Notre Dame, which had the virus run through a good portion of the program at a team meal before playing South Florida—then had a player throw up on the sideline during the game, allegedly infecting other players in the process. Ask the Titans, who came out of their game against the Vikings with many more problems than they had going in.
The virus doesn’t go away on game day. Just assuming that everyone is O.K. once the ball is kicked off is clearly not a safe or smart assumption. Which is why following medical advisories is important, and not just for show.
That’s why college conferences should take a page from the NFL playbook and levy institutional fines or game suspensions for those who refuse to comply. It’s important, and it’s not an unreasonable expectation.
Without putting any teeth behind the mask recommendations and other safety protocols, the message is that the leagues don’t really mean it. The message is that they promised to do whatever they had to just to play, then disregarded it once they got their way. Despite evidence to the contrary, college football shouldn’t be more important than public health.