FAYETTEVILLE — Last year at this time everyone was just hoping for college football due to COVID and now a year later it’s known the sport will be played, but with different circumstances.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey is still having to deal with COVID, but unlike last year don’t expect to see schools be able to postpone games. With the return to regular 12-game schedules the SEC won’t have built-in dates for games to be made up.
“So let’s just indicate like the realities we deal with,” Sankey said. “You hope not to have disruption, but hope is not a plan is the great cliche. We still have roster minimums that exist, just like last year. What I’ve identified for consideration among our membership is we remove those roster minimums and you’re expected to play as scheduled. That means your team needs to be healthy to compete, and if not, that game won’t be rescheduled.”
Last year a school had to have 53 healthy players and certain numbers at some positions to be able to play.
“And thus, to dispose of the game, the “forfeit” word comes up at this point,” Sankey said. “That’s not a policy, and what you see are the bookends now for decision-making. We’ve not built in the kind of time we did last year, particularly at the end of the season, to accommodate disruption. And unless we’re going to do that, our teams are going to have to be fully prepared to play their season as scheduled, which is why embedded in my remarks is the vaccination motivation.”
To get through a 10-game All-SEC schedule last year the SEC implemented a conference-wide COVID testing program.
“That involved a third-party logistics and medical support team that included nearly 350,000 COVID tests,” Sankey said. “About 340,000 were lab-based PCR. That was our standard through the week, through every sport, regardless of the season, and another 10,000 rapid antigen tests. Right now 43 percent of our football teams, that’s 6 of 14, have reached the 80 percent threshold in roster vaccination. That number needs to grow and grow rapidly.
“We have learned how to manage through a COVID environment, but we do not yet have control of a COVID environment, and that finds us preparing to return towards normal this fall, but we see realities around us.”
Sankey wants to see more vaccinations take place in the coming days.
“Let me be clear to our fans, to our coaches, to our staff members, and to our student-athletes: COVID-19 vaccines are widely available,” Sankey said. “They’ve proven to be highly effective. And when people are fully vaccinated, we all have the ability to avoid serious health risks, reduce the virus’ spread, and maximize our chances of returning to a normal college football experience and to normal life.”
The season is nearing as teams will begin playing in approximately six weeks.
“With six weeks to go before kickoff, now is the time to seek that full vaccination,” Sankey said. “And we know nothing is perfect, but the availability and the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines are an important and incredible product of science. It’s not a political football, and we need to do our part to support a healthy society because, as we look back, the potential absence of college sports last year caused us to think about not losing sight of the lifelong experiences, the laboratory of learning that takes place, and the educational benefits that accrue to the people who participate on our teams.”
You talked about COVID and the need for vaccination, but as cases continue to rise in different parts of the country, are you coordinating with other schools, for example, with LSU’s season opener against UCLA and the county reinstating a mask mandate, what are the conversations like as far as attendance and roster management goes?
“A couple aspects,” Sankey said. “One, there is still communication among the conferences, particularly the five conferences, and our medical leaders. That began last May. It was incredibly beneficial and will continue now. Our campuses who are traveling to those non-conference games are going to be in communication with the host and the host community to understand what policies will apply.
“Chicago, for example, had no vaccination out of state travel limitation on the states of Missouri and Arkansas announced last week.
“What we’ll see, I expect, is municipalities and public health officials, perhaps at the state level, continuing to adjust, which brings me back to the mantra of last year, which is we’re going to prepare to play the season as scheduled, and I’m convinced we’ll move forward to the Labor Day weekend start, unlike last year, but we will have to adapt to the circumstances of COVID-19, of the virus. That’s where I talk about we know how to manage through, but we don’t have control of the COVID environment.”
Sankey pointed out what while some conferences weren’t planning on playing last fall, but the SEC stayed firm and on course to make a season happen.
“We had to reimagine a season, how to start again after stopping, how to play the games in the COVID environment, and how to begin when a team was disrupted,” Sankey said. “We had to make that change happen, and I’m proud of the role the SEC played in making certain there was 151st consecutive season of college football.”
For a program to avoid regular COVID testing and the requirement of wearing masks indoors, it must achieve an 85% vaccination threshold.