The Florida Gators will not be packing The Swamp with close to 90,000 fans for this Saturday’s game against LSU. University of Florida President W. Kent Fuchs made that crystal clear on Sunday evening in three tweets:
UF remains fully and firmly committed to following CDC guidelines (https://t.co/xWvCfZxucp) for every part of our campus from classrooms to athletic venues as well as the guidance (https://t.co/NdKCumo9VZ) of our own experts at @UFHealth and local and state health officials.— W. Kent Fuchs (@PresidentFuchs) October 11, 2020
This includes physical distancing by ensuring 6 feet between yourself and others and wearing a mask or cloth face covering. Although adherence to the guidelines restricts our behavior and limits the occupancy of our facilities...— W. Kent Fuchs (@PresidentFuchs) October 11, 2020
these preventative measures remain the most effective ways to slow the spread of COVID-19. It is important that all members of the UF community and our campus visitors follow this guidance.— W. Kent Fuchs (@PresidentFuchs) October 11, 2020
And, in a perfect world, that would put an end to the mini-controversy sparked by Dan Mullen’s heated postgame comments about wanting to have Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at full capacity in the midst of a pandemic in the wake of a larger- and louder-than-expected crowd at Texas A&M — one that may not have been adhering to the same strictures regarding social distancing or mask-wearing that Florida has in place, much less the ones A&M does — playing some sort of role in Florida’s 41-38 loss at Kyle Field.
But Mullen said what he said...
I saw the quotes - thought maybe they lacked some context/nuance, but not really. Dan seemingly at odds w/ UF - certainly at odds w/ public health experts. Disappointed in the Gators performance today but genuinely mortified by this take. No surprise coming from libgator, I know pic.twitter.com/qAt9IljGs3— libgator (@lib_gator) October 10, 2020
...and it made news, spurring headlines he can’t unwrite and becoming a key piece in the highlights packages ESPN ran from the game from Saturday afternoon to Sunday morning, ones that allowed SportsCenter anchors to tsk-tsk disapprovingly.
And let’s be clear about why it made news: While Dan Mullen was not — and is not — wrong about harboring this desire, he fell into a political trap laid by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis last week by articulating it in public.
Any gathering of tens of thousands of people in a city for any purpose is a risky proposition from a public health standpoint right now, as COVID-19 continues to spread. And even though we have compelling evidence that large protests against police brutality and racial injustice from this spring and summer seemingly did not significantly increase the spread of COVID-19, there seem to be mitigating factors for that — many states still restricting movement and economic activity at their peak, non-participants staying home to avoid the protests, a sense of shared responsibility among protesters that led many to wear masks, the outdoor and mobile nature of protests themselves — that are not present today or in regards to a football game.
College football fans coming to a city to support their team more or less as they always have (especially those doing so at the beseeching of a coach that they admire) could very well be less committed to mask-wearing than protesters — if you read the Twitter mentions of any Florida beat writer who publicly pushed back against Mullen’s desires this weekend, you’ll understand that this is a generous hedge — and are likely, in my view, to spend more time in indoor settings like bars and restaurants where COVID-19 transmission is much higher than in a stadium. Those fans are also probably going to need to stay in hotels and some will come from further afield to their selected campus than protesters did to their cities, adding even more risk of transmission.
And there’s a haunting reality backstopping any discussion of COVID-19 spread now: It’s about as bad as it ever was nationally, and getting worse.
While cases in Florida are down from their summertime peak — save for characteristically low Sunday reporting numbers, state’s current weeks-long trend is multiple thousands of new cases per day, only a good thing relative to the around or more than 10,000 per day being reported in the summer months — they still remain near their all-time high in Alachua County, with the tail end of a surge in infections and cases related to UF students returning to school helping produce dozens of new cases per day. And the situation is more dire to the north and west of Alachua, where several Panhandle counties are reporting rates above 5,000 cases per 100,000 people, placing them in the worst of the state’s five categories for describing the community prevalence of COVID-19.
Any epidemiologist worth his or her salt would read the available statistics and science and conclude that large gatherings of people is foolhardy at best at the present moment in the United States.
But DeSantis, whose various approaches to COVID-19 have been roundly criticized, ultimately has the power to dictate whether such gatherings are allowed, and did so last week. And much like with his equally undermining guidance that allows local governments to continue to require masks but ties their hands when it comes to enforcement, that’s a political move meant to accomplish his own aims — the full reopening of a state that needs its tourism industry to spin back up in the worst way, yes, but also smaller things like a full-capacity Super Bowl in Miami next February — while also redirecting blame to people other than himself.
However: DeSantis’s calculation that he can win on two fronts — capitulating to economic interests instead of doing the hard things necessary to truly stop the spread of coronavirus while simultaneously making himself less of a villain than those in charge of local mask mandates or attendance policies for the state’s stadia by passing the buck to them — only works if people play into it. And Mullen, usually a savvy political operator, did just that on Saturday, permitting a fit of pique to let him contribute to making a facially preposterous idea — a full-capacity sporting event, something no major sports organization in the United States has come close to permitting since the March pause of all sports — one that he advocated for pursuing out loud.
I can, to be fair, understand where Mullen was coming from. He was mad about losing, and seemingly rankled by A&M’s surprisingly raucous crowd, one that the Aggies seemingly fed off of well. Florida’s restrictions on crowd size and on the behavior of fans in attendance are among the strictest in the SEC, and it’s hard to envision the lower bowls at The Swamp looking anything like what some sections of the crowd at Kyle Field did. And Florida has done an excellent job of keeping COVID-19 in check among its athlete population, especially Mullen’s football team.
Despite a vocal minority supporting his opinions and trotting out the array of facts (and “facts”) meant to cow the majority into returning to life as usual during the COVID-19 pandemic, though, there was significantly more criticism of and condemnation for Mullen than there was support of him on social media this weekend — and Florida sticking to its plans, as was widely expected, is evidence that Mullen doesn’t have the sway to vent his spleen and reshape the world. This isn’t a popular position, even if it is an understandable one, and Mullen either misjudged or overestimated its appeal.
But what’s worse is that Mullen coming out in favor of such an illogical, irrational idea for his own personal gain suggests that he will put the health of his football program ahead of the health of the players, coaches, staff, and stakeholders who comprise it even though his program has been doing the latter all summer. Asking for fans to pack his team’s stadium while not even paying lip service to the health risks of doing so — something Mullen didn’t do on Saturday, unless you count clenched-jaw “I sure hope they let us do this” wishing directed toward health officials as that — is, at a minimum, undercutting any and every word that Mullen has said about safety and health this year, if not revealing all of that posturing as lying. But it’s also not wrong for Mullen to want for all the precautions and protocols and awkwardness and sacrifice to be worth something more than playing through a half-baked season.
And it doesn’t matter that, on truth serum, the vast majority of college football coaches would want packed stadiums this fall despite all the extenuating circumstances, just like Mullen said he did; Mullen said he did out loud, in so doing making himself the sacrificial lamb for the idea.
I’ve only been honestly disappointed in Dan Mullen at a couple of junctures in his Florida career, but this is one of them, and precisely because it paints him as less rational than he presents himself to be. It would be easy to make all of these words sound like concern trolling, though: All Mullen has to do is admit wrong and apologize for this when he is inevitably asked about it during his Monday media availability, which will leave the chapter closed on this story with him once again affirming his duty to the human beings within his program and looking like a wise man for recognizing an error and correcting it.
I’m not counting on that possibility, as college football coaches admitting wrong in disputes like these is far from a certainly. But I do know that’s Mullen’s very obvious out — and I encourage him to take it.