Commentary: Dabo Swinney’s criticism of coronavirus precautions not only wrong, it’s reckless

The Clemson football coach criticized Florida State for canceling a game after one of his players tested positive for COVID-19.

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Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney again showed how tone deaf and out of touch he can be.

Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney again showed how tone deaf and out of touch he can be.

Matt Cashore/Pool Photo via AP

Dabo Swinney would do well to keep his sanctimony, and his medical opinions, to himself.

There are legitimate questions to raise about the ACC’s protocols and procedures for holding games after a player tests positive for COVID-19, as happened before Saturday’s scheduled game between Clemson and Florida State. The longer the ACC goes without addressing that, the worse it looks for the conference.

But for Swinney to say Florida State was sandbagging by refusing to play, rather than acting out of an abundance of caution, was offensive and irresponsible.

Offensive because it suggests Florida State would use a crisis that has killed almost 260,000 Americans as an excuse to duck a football game. Irresponsible because it feeds the dangerous narrative that COVID-19 really isn’t that bad.

“Football coaches are not doctors,” Florida State coach Mike Norvell said Monday. “Some of us might think we are, but there’s a reason why medical advisers make decisions based on the information that is provided.”

One of Clemson’s backup offensive lineman had shown symptoms of COVID during the week, but he was allowed to practice and travel to Florida State because he had repeatedly tested negative. Only after the team arrived in Tallahassee, Florida, did a test come back showing he had COVID.

Swinney is not wrong in saying Clemson followed ACC protocols. But Florida State was not wrong in saying that wasn’t good enough, either.

It’s true that young people are less susceptible to COVID and, when they do get it, usually have less serious cases. But we don’t know enough yet about “long haulers,” people who still aren’t recovered from “mild” cases even months later. Even the handful of severe cases among young and healthy athletes — Jacksonville Jaguars running back Ryquell Armstead has been hospitalized at least twice — ought to give pause to those making decisions about whether to put players in harm’s way.

If Florida State erred on the side of caution, deciding it wasn’t worth gambling on the health and safety of its players for a game that day, that’s deserving of praise, not criticism. 

“It absolutely was a COVID issue,” said Norvell, who might be in a better position than Swinney to opine after missing a game earlier this season with COVID. 

I do get Swinney’s frustration. Clemson trails Notre Dame by a game in the ACC race and, at 1-6, Florida State probably looked like a gimme. Canceling the game just three hours before kickoff also was less than ideal.

But playing a college football season in the midst of a pandemic was always going to be a crapshoot, requiring flexibility and grace from everybody involved. Instead of accepting Florida State’s offer of a makeup game next month — Norvell even said he’d be willing to foot part of the bill — Swinney went scorched earth.

And put countless others at risk in the process. 

Swinney’s success at Clemson gives him outsized influence, both in South Carolina and with Clemson fans everywhere. By casting doubt on the seriousness of COVID, Swinney gave fans already inclined to ignore the warnings license to doubt it, too.

“There’s another pandemic ravaging our nation right now: political correctness,” Clemson defensive assistant Miguel Chavis wrote on Twitter.

And therein lies the danger.

Flat-earthers will point to COVID’s low death rate — 2.1 percent in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins — as reason not to wear masks or limit our normal activities. But when we are adding 150,000 new cases a day — as we did every day last week — it should not take a math genius to accept the grim horror of this virus.

Medical experts are begging Americans to stay home, even curtail Thanksgiving celebrations, to end this latest surge. Do we really need to see COVID patients suffocate as they die to get that? Do we really have to hear the cacophony of alarms when COVID patients code to understand how we have failed as a country? Is it really going to take someone in our immediate family dying for us to adopt the simplest measures of personal responsibility?

This isn’t the first time Swinney has expressed an opinion not exactly rooted in reality. He insists players shouldn’t be paid, while he will earn more than $8 million this year. He questioned why the NCAA needed to give players Election Day off since most would have already voted, completely missing the symbolism of the move. 

But there is a line between tone deaf and reckless. With his criticism of Florida State, Swinney crossed it.


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