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Coaches inspire and instruct on the field. Can they help in a pandemic?

Alabama Coach Nick Saban appeared in a public service announcement about the coronavirus earlier this year. (John Bazemore/AP)

In March, when the novel coronavirus had just begun to upend everyday life in the United States, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) turned to his chief of staff and told him their office needed a public service announcement by the end of the day. Mark Cooper, tasked with organizing the PSA, called upon the state’s most beloved football coach. Ed Orgeron, a close friend of Edwards’s, immediately agreed to help.

Orgeron, a native Louisianian, had just led LSU to the national title and seemed to be an obvious choice. And by that afternoon, the governor’s office had prepared a video of Orgeron encouraging viewers to follow public health guidelines, such as physical distancing and hand-washing.

“He was the best person to hear that from,” Cooper said.

Coaches, by nature, instruct and inspire. So as the country navigates a pandemic, their voices serve as a powerful tool for disseminating information. Other state governments followed Louisiana’s lead, and similar PSAs continued to appear, including some with a focus on wearing masks in public.

“I’m probably the most televised West Virginian there is,” said West Virginia men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins, who appeared in the state’s video campaign that urged residents to wear masks.

Public health recommendations usually are viewed through an apolitical lens, but masks, in particular, have grown divisive. President Trump has frequently been pictured without a facial covering. In late April, Vice President Pence visited the Mayo Clinic but did not wear a mask. He later said he should have covered his face. This past weekend, Pence encouraged the use of masks and urged people to follow social distancing guidelines.

The Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index found that the share of Democrats who reported that they always wore a mask when leaving home rose from 49 percent for the period between April 10 and May 4 to 65 percent between May 8 and June 22. The share of Republicans who reported they always wore a mask saw a much smaller increase from 29 percent to 35 percent.

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With cases surging in states including Arizona, Florida, Texas and South Carolina, some top Republicans have urged their residents to wear masks. University athletic departments have joined in on the push. Head football coaches from Missouri, Penn State, TCU and Georgia Tech have encouraged masks. The Twitter bio for University of Central Florida football recently updated to include: “Wear a mask.”

As states reopen and athletes head back to their campuses, multiple football teams, including Clemson and even Orgeron’s LSU, have had coronavirus outbreaks. Some programs have temporarily suspended voluntary workouts.

Students could start to return in the coming months, which will only heighten the risk of the virus’s spread, so in this time of transition, prominent sports figures, beloved on their campuses, could lead through their words and actions. Coaches may not have medical expertise, but they have significant influence and engaged fan bases willing to watch.

‘Let’s be coachable’

Coaches are judged by wins and losses, not by the impact of a PSA. But they understand the influence they have. So when a government official asks a coach to recite a few sentences about health guidelines, the decision is simple.

“The people in the state of West Virginia are important to me,” said Huggins, who was born in Morgantown, played for West Virginia and has coached at his alma mater since 2007. “ … I think we owe so much to the people here and certainly want to help in any way we possibly can.”

College coaches are often their state’s highest-paid employee, and they’re highly visible because of televised games, radio shows, news conferences and public events. They become recognizable faces that are tied to the community they represent.

Steven J. Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab and a professor at York University in Toronto, has researched celebrities’ influence on people’s health-related behaviors. Hoffman’s 2015 paper, which brought together the existing science on this topic, found that “humans are biologically, psychologically and socially hardwired to follow celebrities’ medical advice,” he said.

As some locations experience spikes in cases, many officials have urged people to wear masks in public. Coaches amplifying that advice is “one of the best examples for the potentially powerful and helpful role that celebrities can play right now,” Hoffman said, adding that research has shown celebrities’ influence is significant when it relates to changing social norms.

Some people might not wear a mask because it’s uncomfortable or they want to feel as though their lives are returning to normal, said Jonas Kaplan, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California who studies the biological basis of belief.

But if people are hesitant to wear masks because they believe it projects fear or weakness, a prominent coach wearing one could help change that view. Hoffman’s research referenced marketing studies that indicated the characteristics of celebrities are transferred to the products they endorse. In this case, coaches, usually pegged as strong and tough, could help change the associations tied to a mask by wearing one in a video or in public.

With celebrities’ influence on health-related behaviors, the danger lies in inaccurate information if they do not partner with credible organizations that promote evidence-based practices. If prominent sports figures show a disregard for certain behaviors, they could become a negative force in their community.

Roy Williams, the longtime men’s basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, said he asks all the time: “This is right? This is correct?” Williams, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina State Coach Kevin Keatts appeared in a joint PSA for North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D). They urged the community to practice behaviors that would limit the spread of the virus.

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The purpose of that video, Williams said, was to show they valued the advice of medical professionals. The coaches weren’t asking the viewers to listen to them. They asked that viewers join them in listening to doctors. The message, Williams said, was essentially, “Let’s be coachable.”

‘A huge difference’

Big Al, Alabama’s costumed elephant mascot, appears first in the 39-second video the university’s athletic department released in late May. Then Nick Saban, the football coach who has led the Crimson Tide to five national titles, steps into the room.

From behind his Alabama-themed mask, Saban lightheartedly criticizes the mascot: “Hey, Big Al, you need to be staying six feet away from me. And haven’t I told you, you have to wear a mask when you’re in this building?”

The video message is simple, but Saban and his coaching counterparts have remarkable influence among their fan bases. With football season approaching, they can also remind fans of the obvious incentive to adhere to health guidelines.

“All of us want to make sure we play football this fall,” Saban says in the video, before urging viewers to stay at home if they feel sick, wash their hands often, practice physical distancing and wear masks.

People are more likely to act on messages that come from credible sources, Hoffman said. Saban appeared in the PSA with Jeff Allen, the school’s director of sports medicine, so Alabama’s video had both a celebrity and a medical professional.

Saban never appears without a mask in the Alabama clip. Huggins participated in his mask PSA with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III (D). Krzyzewski spoke in a similar video that encouraged people to wear masks.

“If you feel close to somebody, I think it makes a huge difference,” Huggins said. “Maybe my face being on there would cause somebody to stop and listen.”

‘He’s one of ours’

Fans of a team feel as though they are part of the organization, rather than a consumer of an entertainment product. Teams become “symbols for communities,” said Bob Heere, a professor at the University of North Texas whose research focuses on fan communities. Those allegiances can guide decisions outside the spectrum of sports.

“Sharing experiences with a group and feeling part of that group,” Kaplan said, “can be one of the strong motivations that drives our decision-making and our belief formation.”

New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick’s voice wouldn’t carry the same weight in Alabama, and Saban wouldn’t have an equal pull in Massachusetts. Heere said the thinking within sports communities is, “He’s one of ours, so I’m going to listen and I’m more receptive.”

In the PSAs, some coaches have spoken to their fans with jargon that’s familiar. They disseminate the proper advice, but they urge viewers to comply as if they are all part of their program.

As Orgeron stood with Tiger Stadium in the background, he began by saying: “For every winning team, a key to success is learning the playbook. That’s true in football, and that’s also true as we take on the coronavirus.”

The program’s massive fan base then watched and listened. Social media provided a platform for widespread sharing that led to a national reach. The video Edwards tweeted accumulated millions of views. Without ­Orgeron’s participation, Mark Cooper, the staffer who organized it, said, “There’s no way it would have had that.”

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