Something unusual happened on Saturday after Florida’s train-derailment of a loss in Missouri. For one of the first times I can recall this season, a Florida player looked at the atrocity that is this team right now and was — gasp — honest.
There was no “we just didn’t execute.” No “we’ve just gotta focus on the next game.” No typical tropes and cliches from sophomore linebacker David Reese. Instead, as coach Randy Shannon pointed out on Monday, he called out his teammates.
“It’s sometimes disappointing when everybody doesn’t want to come together and just play for each other,” Reese told reporters following the 45-16 beatdown. “That’s sad to see. We’ve still got a lot to play for. Me personally and our defense, we want to play for those guys. We can’t have appearances like we just had today. That’s unacceptable.”
Shannon said those remarks have elevated Reese to the team’s main leader despite his sophomore standing. And I really have to ask why.
I’ve written before about how sports journalism can be contrived, absurd and downright dishonest. Because, let’s be real, no matter how much Malik Zaire hypothetically hates the way he’s being treated at Florida, he’ll never say that with 20 digital recorders crowding his head. No matter how much Dre Massey hypothetically thinks he’s not getting enough playing time, he’s going to tell reporters he’s just happy to get any opportunity. And that’s the story I and my fellow Florida beat writers have to write.
That explains why a moment of candidness like Reese’s was so refreshing and had such an impact.
“I think this comment has really made him be the guy that is a leader on this football team,” Shannon said. “A guy who’s not afraid to speak his mind and speak what he really believes in as far as this football team… He's challenged everybody.”
But is speaking his mind really all it takes to become a leader? Has honesty really become so rare in the sports ecosystem that all it takes to gain respect is to recognize the team is playing poorly? Because it doesn’t take lots of depth to figure that out.
Florida has lost four straight games — the last two by a combined score of 87-23 — and is ranked in the bottom half of every major offensive category in the SEC. It’s not a secret that this team stinks. Yet if you listened to some of the interviews done with players over the last few weeks without proper context, you’d think the Gators were driving toward a national championship.
Running back Mark Thompson, for example, was asked last week if the coaching changes could help revitalize a beaten-down team.
“Everybody is just ready to compete and get on the field Saturday and win a game,” he said. Which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with what he said. But it just feels a little superficial. Like he’s not getting to the whole truth of the matter. The breadth of what he’s feeling.
Reese did that. He wasn’t afraid to open up. And more players should imitate him because good leadership without honesty cannot exist, and apparently honesty is lacking if that one candid remark made Reese the lone voice of reason.
Granted, there are some shortcomings on the reporter side, too. Players are often treated like oranges being juiced into sound bites about things they know nothing about. Why would defensive tackle Taven Bryan, for example, get asked about UF’s quarterback situation?
Regardless, it goes back to much of sports reporting being contrived and dishonest. Which can work because it still provides an escape for stressed-out fans, but which could be better because, obviously, fans prefer honest answers.
Reese’s comments are a good start down that path. And while I don’t expect linebacker Jeremiah Moon to call out Zaire’s sloppy play at practice next time I speak with him, it’d certainly be a step up from the usual cliches — a step toward real accountability for a team that needs it.
Ethan Bauer is a sports writer. Contact him at email@example.com