There are an abundance of reasons why the Gators lost their first game of the 2020 season against Texas A&M on Saturday.
There’s the fact that they allowed 32 first downs. There’s the fact that UF’s defense gave up 500 yards of offense for the second time in three weeks. There’s also the fact that TAMU converted on 12 of its 15 third-down opportunities.
But Florida coach Dan Mullen fixated on one variable during his postgame press conference.
“The crowd was certainly a factor in the game,” he said. “I know our governor passed that rule so certainly; hopefully, the UF administration decides to let us pack The Swamp against LSU — 100% — because that crowd was certainly a factor in the game. I certainly hope our administration follows the governor.”
“The governor has passed a rule that we’re allowed to pack The Swamp and have 90,000 in The Swamp to give us the home-field advantage Texas A&M had today."
The “rule” Mullen is referring to is the decision from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to allow stadiums in the state to return to full capacity as part of “Phase Three” of reopening. No professional or collegiate sports teams in the state have announced plans to return to full capacity.
Asked for a follow-up by Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi, Mullen had the opportunity to clarify his comments. He had the chance to walk back his statement. Instead, he doubled down.
“Absolutely, I want to see 90,000 at The Swamp,” Mullen said. “The section behind our bench, I didn’t see an empty seat. It was packed, the entire student section. It must have been 50,000 people behind our bench going crazy. Hopefully, that will create a home-field advantage for us next week because we’ve passed a law in our state that allows us to do that.”
I get that Mullen was frustrated. To clarify, no laws have actually been passed in the state of Florida regarding stadium capacity. Watching on the broadcast, it did appear as though the fans at Kyle Field — at an announced capacity of 24,709 — weren’t particularly keen on social distancing.
I also know it can’t be fun to have microphones shoved in your face moments after suffering a devastating and emotional loss — one that has real-world impacts on you and your family.
But these aren’t justifications for his comments, which were highly irresponsible. More irresponsible, perhaps, than he realized in the moment.
These sentiments fly in the face of the consensus of public health experts, who say that large gatherings (such as tens of thousands of fans attending a sporting event) put participants at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
Even with capacities at stadiums significantly reduced, the staff has struggled to enforce safety regulations.
My colleagues Noah Ram and Zachary Huber were at Florida’s home opener against South Carolina last week, where the attendance for the game numbered 15,120 (below the maximum allowed capacity of 20%).
Despite the stadium’s attendance being reduced to below a fifth of its total capacity, they reported that staffers had difficulty or weren’t always making sure fans were wearing masks. When the game ended, social distancing was thrown to the wayside as piles of fans tried to leave.
Without sufficient contact tracing, it’s impossible to know exactly how impactful these games are on the spread of COVID-19. Once the fans (many of whom come from out of town) leave the stadium and return back to their hometowns, they could carry the virus with them. Currently, there’s no way of knowing if that’s the case.
To suggest that UF should increase the capacity of The Swamp to a full 88,548 now is absolutely ludicrous.
It was a comment born of frustration and misplaced blame at his team’s struggles, which have been consistent through three games regardless of locale and crowd size. Luckily, Athletic Director Scott Stricklin seems to agree.
He told Bianchi, who wrote a column criticizing Mullen, that the UAA currently has no plans to expand the capacity at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“We continue to follow UF Health and campus guidelines,” he said. “I’ve not heard anything about campus adjusting (its) guidelines.”
It’s encouraging to see that public safety will likely triumph over the idea of “home-field advantage,” but it doesn’t make Mullen’s comments any less tone-deaf.
Many students have had their lives totally upended by the pandemic. They’ve been forced to pay full tuition for online classes, which are often less substantive than their in-person counterparts. Many put themselves at risk of infection daily, whether from living in a dorm or taking select classes in person.
A number of these students won’t get to walk in a formal graduation, and a sizable proportion of those will be first-generation college graduates whose families won’t get the chance to see their dreams realized.
And yet, despite that, Mullen thinks it would be a good idea to cram nearly 90,000 of them into a concrete bowl once a week in the name of “competitive advantage.”
Such a suggestion is laughable.
I’m sure Mullen didn’t consider the full weight of the words he used and how ridiculous his idea was, given the circumstances. I fully expect him to retract those comments during his press conference on Monday.
But the fact that he would even entertain the idea of filling the stadium demonstrates a concerning level of apathy from the leader of a program directly responsible for the safety of over 100 players and staff.
Contact Tyler Nettuno at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @TylerNettuno.