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The Power Of Influence

Coaches at all levels, in most all sports, have a considerable amount of influence over their athletes. That’s obviously much of the criticism of abusive behaviors of some coaches, as the athletes are often limited in their perceived ability to resist. It’s also the secret sauce of some highly successful coaches, where athletes will go beyond what they deemed possible for collective success. As they say in some sports, they’ll run through a wall for their coach. Editorialize that from your own perspective, but it does illustrate the power and influence of a coach in sports.

That potential may be put to the test in the collective fight against Covid-19, which, beyond the obvious global carnage, has the clear potential to derail any team’s and any athlete’s season. That was fairly obvious to a whole bunch of college football coaches last fall, many who were lucky to hit the field with enough athletes to play both ways. You could make the argument that the most successful teams were the ones who were simply able to fill a game day roster. Which means that if you’re a coach, especially a football coach heading into the fall season, perhaps your number one goal is to have as few Covid outbreaks as humanly possible.

Of course, there’s one ideal way to do that, at least if you believe in science. And that’s to make sure that everyone on your team is vaccinated. That can be a relatively achievable task for a smaller roster, say basketball or college cross country, and perhaps more herculean for something like football, where NFL rosters are 53 and college teams can run over 100, depending on the division. While it’s obviously not failsafe, it seems like you’ve got a much better shot at keeping all your players at games and out of quarantine if they got the jab.

That, it seems, has become something of a challenge, at least for some coaches and some teams, and it’s clearly stretched the boundaries of what will and won’t be mandated. For example, high school programs find themselves at the mercy of their geography and political reality, as getting a fully vaccinated high school team in rural Alabama is probably harder than winning the state title. And as school administrators are likely handcuffed on what they can and can’t say to their students, this may be the one place where a coach can’t use their power. Run wind sprints until it gets dark, sure. But encourage public health, no way.

On the other hand, there are several universities that have mandated vaccinations for all students, including athletes, although primarily in the Northeast outside of the traditional southern football power grid. And then there’s some surprising statistical anomalies, like Ole Miss head football coach Lane Kiffin announcing that everyone in the Ole Miss football program – 240 players, coaches, and staff – are all vaccinated. That is perhaps the biggest upset in sports history, and maybe the sole reason for hope in this country. Kiffin did this, not surprisingly, through constant communication and persuasion, something he is very good at – if you know anything about Lane.

And then, of course, are the NFL, NBA, and other pro leagues that are somewhere below 100% vaccinated but often above 90%, well about the US average. In that lie some notable exceptions, including Baltimore star quarterback Lamar Jackson, who’s had Covid not once but twice in eight months – both symptomatic cases – but still isn’t sure about the vaccine. And Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is considering setting up a private plexiglass box around him at team meetings but won’t take the vaccine. He leads a Vikings squad that’s less than two thirds vaccinated, the worst in the League. That comes despite the utter frustration of Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer, who has stressed how important this is. Not for nothing, the WNBA is around 99% vaccinated. So there’s that.

What does this all mean? Of course, who knows what anything means, as I’m assuming the Delta variant will be followed by Epsilon, Gamma, or whatever comes next in the Greek alphabet. But it’s clear that while athletes may be ahead of the national curve, there’s still lots of work to be done – and at times a limit to the power of a head coach. It’s also a concern that people with considerable influence, like Jackson or Cousins, may confound the larger national effort to put science ahead of voodoo. And perhaps more than anything, when it comes to sports this fall, like the games themselves, it’s still up in the air.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.