Opinion: Mike Leach, Bryan Harsin invite distraction by keeping COVID-19 vaccination status private

·4 min read

I'm not going to use this space to advocate for the COVID-19 vaccine, because I'm not going to pretend that you'll take medical advice from a sports columnist.

Regardless of what you think about the COVID-19 vaccine or vaccine mandates, it’s undeniable that Auburn football coach Bryan Harsin and Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach are inviting a wholly unnecessary distraction for their football programs by continuing to keep their vaccination status private amid their respective employer's vaccine mandate.

Harsin and Leach, dating to SEC Media Days in July, have declined to address whether they’ve taken the COVID-19 vaccine.

Before the season, I thought prominent leaders at publicly funded institutions – like Harsin and Leach – should value transparency over privacy and disclose whether they are vaccinated. Most SEC football coaches have done so.

Now, though, Harsin and Leach’s vaccination status will determine whether they get to keep their jobs, assuming Auburn and Mississippi State follow through with university policies announced in recent days.

Mississippi State coach Mike Leach.
Mississippi State coach Mike Leach.

The schools are requiring employees to provide proof of vaccination by Dec. 8, except in limited circumstances that legally entitle an employee to a medical or religious exemption.

Auburn and Mississippi State say their policies are a move to comply with federal requirements regarding COVID-19 vaccines.

Harsin and Leach make a living in a profession that expects players to follow coaches’ guidance and rules. Meanwhile, they refuse to say whether they are in compliance or plan to comply with their employer’s rules.

Asked during his Monday news conference whether he's been vaccinated, Harsin once again refused to say.

"From the beginning, I think I've made it clear that that wasn't something that I was going to talk about or discuss," said Harsin, who tested positive for COVID-19 in August, along with others within Auburn’s football program.

Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin.
Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin.

Leach, too, was asked Monday for comment about the new policy. A coach who openly pontificates about pirates, candy corn and social media usage took a pass on this topic.

“The whole COVID vaccine thing bounces all over the place,” Leach said. “That would be like commenting on each hit in a tennis match. I don’t have any comment.”

Auburn maintains about $200 million in federal contracts, according to the university’s news release announcing its policy. Mississippi Public Universities are working under federal contracts valued at $271 million, according to the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning.

Harsin and Leach are worth less than that.

We've already seen one Power Five football coach, Washington State’s Nick Rolovich, get fired after he declined to comply with a state mandate requiring university employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 18.

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If I were an Auburn or Mississippi State player, I’d like to know whether my coach is vaccinated or otherwise plans to comply with the university policy, or whether he intends to risk getting fired. Recruits probably would like to know, too. And recruits’ parents, and fellow staff members, and donors.

Perhaps Harsin and Leach have revealed their vaccination status to all these individuals, but I’ve found that it’s hard to keep something a secret after you disclose it to hundreds of people.

Normally, coaches do anything possible to eliminate distractions. Harsin and Leach are swimming against the current.

Coaches preach sacrifice and a team-first mentality, but nothing about this charade is productive for the team. Their silence equates to selfishness. These coaches are valuing secrecy over promoting a distraction-free environment.

If they’ve taken the jab, they could end this song and dance by saying so. If they are unvaccinated, they could disclose whether they plan to comply with their employer’s policy by the deadline.

Come December, attention should be on recruiting and bowl game preparation, but you can bet that some of the spotlight for Auburn and Mississippi State will be diverted toward whether Harsin and Leach are vaccinated or otherwise will risk their job.

Rolovich’s vaccination status spiraled into a never-ending drama around Washington State’s program until he was fired.

Harsin and Leach have the power to end this distraction. Instead, they’re embracing it.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter: @btoppmeyer.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Mike Leach, Bryan Harsin mum on vaccine status, inviting distraction

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