Florida Memorial cancels fall sports and athletic director resigns after COVID-19 surge

David Wilson
·6 min read

Florida Memorial University is taking drastic action after a COVID-19 surge on campus led to mass postponements of sporting events and widespread outcry from students and staff about the university’s handling of the pandemic.

On Friday, Florida Memorial canceled the remainder of its fall sports seasons after postponing all but two sporting events in the first half of October because of COVID concerns.

Athletic director Ernest T. Jones also resigned Friday “to pursue other career opportunities,” president Dr. Jaffus Hardrick said in a statement.

While he did not mention the coronavirus in his statement about Jones’ resignation, Hardrick wrote a lengthy post about the university’s handling of the pandemic on the school’s website last week, acknowledging students’ concerns, while also critiquing “negative press and social media posts” about the increase in cases.

“Over the past few days, Florida Memorial University [FMU] has been the subject of negative press and social media posts,” Hardrick wrote Oct. 11. “These communications imply that the University has not been forthcoming about the status of COVID-19 on campus. It is not and never has been our intention to hide critical information from our University community. Please know that negative and inaccurate messaging is damaging to the University and hinders our ability to garner much-needed resources for our students.”

The Lions, who compete as part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, officially announced Chevonne Mansfield as interim athletic director Monday.

Mansfield previously worked as assistant media relations director for the Southeastern Conference and communications director for Lead1 Association, which represents FBS athletic directors, and has been Florida Memorial’s deputy athletic director since 2019.

“I look forward to helping our department and our university meet challenges, and embrace new opportunity,” Mansfield said. “That’s the million-dollar question: How do you build trust? ... By being an active and effective listener, which is something I’ve tried to do since starting at Florida Memorial a year and a half ago.”

The university has dealt with an uptick in cases of the virus throughout October, which ultimately led the cancellation of fall sports last week.

Three weeks ago, the virus started to spread throughout the Lions’ athletics programs when an athletic department employee, who works closely with athletes in all sports, tested positive just days after traveling on a bus with the football team to and from Babson for a game against Webber International University in Polk County, an athletic department employee told the Miami Herald.

In the ensuing days, at least 30 football players tested positive for the virus, the athletic department source said, and the entire volleyball team went into isolation because of positive tests and contact tracing, four players told the Herald.

Jones said the athletic department tested athletes only once every three weeks and athletes said social distancing guidelines were not strictly enforced at sporting events, which was evidenced in a video from a volleyball match last month just before the campus’ outbreak. Four volleyball players said they asked to play without fans in attendance and their requests were denied.

The school wound up postponing all sporting events from Oct. 1 through last Wednesday before the men’s soccer team played a game Thursday against Southeastern University in Lakeland. The next day, the university canceled all fall sports, which include football, volleyball, and men’s and women’s soccer.

Students and faculty have sharply criticized Jones, either anonymously to media outlets like the Herald and HBCUGameday.com, or publicly through social media and a series of online petitions calling for the AD’s removal. The parent of one women’s basketball player told the Herald her daughter was removed from her team because of Twitter posts critical of the athletic department, although Jones denied any knowledge of such action.

Florida Memorial was the only historically Black college or university (HBCU) playing football in the fall, as nearly every other HBCU pushed football to the spring.

Jones did, however, suspend three coaches throughout the tumultuous period — volleyball coach Marrita Crockett-Moulton, cheerleading coach Kalyn Jones and football coach Timothy Harris, better known as “Ice” — and at least Crockett-Mouton’s suspension was tied to players speaking out against the athletic director, one coach told the Herald.

Men’s soccer coach Connor Campbell also resigned, citing the administration’s mistreatment of players and coaches, according to a copy of an email he sent to his players, which the Herald obtained.

The suspension of Harris, which Jones never explained beyond referring to it as “a disciplinary issue” in a conversation with assistant coaches, cleared the way for Jones, who was last the interim coach of the FCS Morgan State Bears in 2018, to take over as the interim coach of the Lions’ revived football program.

Multiple phone calls and text messages sent to Jones were not returned. Harris, who won three state championships as the coach of Miami Booker T. Washington, is in his first season as Florida Memorial’s coach. The Lions revived their football this season to play for the first time since 1958.

On Monday, Harris, Crockett-Moulton and Jones were among the coaches in attendance in Miami Gardens as Florida Memorial held a press conference to introduce Mansfield as the athletic director.

The university plans to go forward with winter sports under new leadership. A new COVID-19 dashboard on the school website lists 35 new cases of the coronavirus on campus in October.

In September, there were 61 cases, according to the dashboard, which counts cases “based on the most recent reporting of testing conducted at Florida Memorial University.”

“I think we all realize we’re living in an unprecedented time,” Hardrick said. “Nobody has a manual on how to manage COVID-19 other than just completely shutting down, but we know that’s not the reality in anything that we do. Life has to go on and we must learn how to adjust and how to adapt in any kind of changing environment. That’s just what great leaders do and that’s what great people do. You cannot just shut down your lives, so everything that we are doing here at Florida Memorial — even from the height of the pandemic, Florida Memorial University was very safe.

“I listened to the students, but I also listened to the voices of others and I realized that it was just in our best interest to just discontinue moving forward with our athletic programs at least through the end of the semester. This now gives us the opportunity to focus, reshift, pivot, do whatever we need to do to restart the athletic programs, and make sure that our students are healthy and safe.”