Mississippi State coach Mike Leach’s facemasking violation reveals unwillingness to sacrifice for the team

Mike Leach does not get it. He is paid millions, literally as part of the higher education system in the state of Mississippi, and yet he chooses to remain uninformed.

The facts about the value of wearing face coverings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 have been totally unmasked for months now.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Robert Redfield called face coverings “the most powerful public health tool” the U.S. has against the coronavirus.

The Mayo Clinic explained, “Face masks, combined with other preventive measures such as frequent hand-washing on social distancing, help slow the spread of the virus.”

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious disease, made a point that seems to speak almost directly to Leach, although he said it nearly two months ago: “What we need to do is get the message across that we are all in this together.”

Leach is not. It’s an inconvenience to him. He is a football coach, and therefore very important, and so when he coached Mississippi State to a thrilling upset of LSU last Saturday, he spent a lot of his time with his gaiter-style mask warming his neck rather than covering his nose and mouth. He told a New York Times reporter in a press conference Monday that he withdrew the mask because he was “taking it down to talk.”

There are two major problems with this statement:

1. Keeping the face covering in place while speaking is even more important because one is more likely to expel particles in that instance;

2. Face coverings do not restrict vocal chords.

We’ve all seen enough TV news reports from masked reporters at this point to recognize that it’s possible to speak with a covering over one’s nose and mouth. The words may be slightly muffled, but it’s still easier to make out what Miguel Almaguer is telling us about the Pacific Rim wildfires than to decipher half the accented English on Netflix’s U.K. cop shows.

Leach finds it inconvenient to speak through a face covering? That’s odd, because so many football coaches love to lecture about the value of overcoming adversity.

In early August, the Southeastern Conference established the sideline protocols that would be followed when the league’s football season launched Sept. 26. Among them: “All coaches, staff and non-competing student-athletes are required to wear a face mask/neck gaiter on the sideline.”

In his first game as an SEC coach, Leach demonstrated the rules did not apply to him.

And he made clear why in his exchange with Alan Blinder: “I try to do my best with it, but once you’re six feet apart, I can’t help but wonder if some of this is an homage to politicians.”

The coaches working in college football are not in a bubble. Coaches in the NBA and NHL had no contact with the outside world for nearly three months. So there’s a risk of infection, and anything those on a football sideline can do to mitigate this, particularly something as unobtrusive as wearing a facemask, ought to seem a small sacrifice.

There have been 22 college football games postponed to date, including Notre Dame-Wake Forest this past Saturday. The Houston Cougars have yet to get on the field. The NFL has played three weeks of its season and already has a significant issue with the Tennessee Titans, whose facility has been shut down until Saturday and whose Sunday game against the Pittsburgh Steelers may require postponement. The Minnesota Vikings also were compelled to close their building Tuesday.

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Although we already have had one COVID death strike a football player whose team was not competing — lineman Jamain Stephens Jr. of California (Pa.) — this is not simply about the risk of infection to athletes. It’s also about preventing the spread of the disease, whether it’s to the coaches, trainers and staff working to support the team or out in the student body or larger community.

The issue with the Titans first became apparent when one of their assistant coaches, Shane Bowen, was placed in COVID protocol after testing Saturday and missed the trip to Minnesota, where Tennessee earned a 31-30 victory. Tuesday, it was reported that three Titans players and five staff members had tested positive. There have been no positive tests with the Vikings, but they shut down out of caution.

That’s how quickly a season can be affected. Leach was free to observe how the first three weekends of the college season developed in September and how many teams had to miss games. He might have come to understand this if he didn’t already have all the answers.