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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney finds himself at the center of controversy once again.

Not for something that took place on the field, mind you. After all, it’s hard to find much fault with the Tigers’ play under their two-time national championship-winning coach. Rather, it’s for something he said at a press conference, somewhat of a recurring theme throughout his tenure.

He opposed the addition of social justice messages on college football jerseys. He once said that if players were paid, he would find something else to do (in all fairness, he has since softened that stance. Perhaps his $93 million contract helped him see the value of compensation?). Even in the last several months, he’s been a consistent critic of COVID-19 protocols.

Now, he’s back in the spotlight again.

On Saturday, Clemson was set to take on Florida State in Tallahassee when the game was abruptly postponed just hours before it was set to kick off.

According to ESPN, the postponement came from a Clemson player testing positive late Friday night. The player, whose identity remains anonymous beyond the fact that they are a backup offensive lineman, showed mild symptoms during the week despite testing negative for COVID-19 twice. By Friday, the symptoms were gone and that player was permitted to travel with the team.

The positive result wasn’t confirmed until the team already traveled to Tallahassee.

Swinney wasn’t happy, and it makes sense why. The Tigers were out of action since a loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 7, and starting quarterback Trevor Lawrence hadn’t been available since Oct. 24 due to his own bout with the virus.

Swinney wanted to get his team back on a playing field, and when that possibility was taken away, he didn’t hold back.

It once again demonstrated how stunningly out of touch the star head coach is.

Immediately, Swinney played the blame game.

“This game was not canceled because of COVID," he said Sunday. "COVID was just an excuse to cancel the game. I have no doubt their players wanted to play and would have played. And same with the coaches. To me, the Florida State administration forfeited the game."

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Not only are these comments incredibly callous in the wake of a pandemic that has killed more than 250,000 people in the United States, but they bury the lede below the Earth’s crust.

Because Florida State isn’t at fault for the game’s cancellation. The Seminoles weren’t the team returning positive tests. 

That would be Clemson.

Swinney essentially summed up his thesis as follows.

"We were there. We were ready. We met the standards to play," Swinney said. "In my opinion, they forfeited the game. That's $300,000 (in travel costs) that's gone out the window. ... If the standard to play was zero positive tests, we never would've had a season."

There’s some truth to this statement. Sure, the bar for postponing games never was a single positive test, but framing this circumstance in such a way is ignorant at best and dishonest at worst.

Quarantine policy this season doesn’t just apply to players who test positive for the virus; players who come in contact with them must also quarantine. As the entire Clemson football team was exposed to the player on the plane, it’s understandable why Florida State was hesitant to force the game to occur, even given the program’s offer to retest the team on Saturday.

Tuesday, Swinney doubled down on his comments, even going a step further and criticizing FSU’s athletic department.

“I’m not really worried much about what they say down there in Tallahassee,” he quipped. “I’ve been in this league 18 years, I’ve been the head coach for 12. They’ve had three head coaches in four years."

Even ignoring Swinney’s tone, which comes across as little more than that of a petulant child, these comments from any coach — let alone from one of the best in the game — are more than a little concerning.

And you know what? He could be absolutely right. Perhaps the Seminoles, who are 1-6, were trying to get out of their game against the No. 4 Tigers. Speculating on such a matter is pointless and irresponsible, but even if it were true, it’d be irrelevant.

This game didn’t matter. Clemson was going to win by 40 points, at the minimum, and the victory would have done little to affect its chances of making the College Football Playoff.

It’s unclear why Swinney is so fired up about this. But it’s definitely not surprising.

He’s no stranger to being the center of a public relations controversy. His tendency to voice his (often contrarian) opinions is nothing new.

Maybe Swinney’s just trying to fan the flames of a rivalry. Maybe he’s trying to motivate his team. Maybe he likes being the center of attention. Maybe his tone-deafness is completely sincere. Maybe it’s all of the above.

It really doesn’t matter. Swinney represents one of the top programs in college football at the moment. He has built a phenomenal team with a recipe for repeated success. He should be college football’s golden boy.

Instead, his apathetic treatment of the platform he possesses has once again rendered him vulnerable to criticism. And as tends to be the case, he deserves every bit of it.

Contact Tyler Nettuno at tnettuno@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @TylerNettuno.

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