Greg Sankey didn’t pull any punches. The Southeastern Conference commissioner, who helped steer college football through the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago, sent a message Monday that should resonate from Columbia, South Carolina, to Columbia, Missouri, and beyond.
“We have learned how to manage through a COVID environment, but we do not yet have control of the COVID environment,” Sankey said, “and that finds us preparing to return towards normal this fall, but we see realities around us.”
As Sankey explained during his opening address at SEC Media Days 2021 at the Hyatt Regency Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, one reality that could hit SEC football teams in the face this fall: forfeits.
Like 2020, the SEC still has a minimum roster size in place of 53 players who must be available for a team to be able to play. Unlike 2020, the SEC did not build any extra open weeks into the schedule to allow for games to be postponed and rescheduled should a roster be reduced by a COVID outbreak.
“You hope not to have disruption, but ‘hope is not a plan’ is the great cliché,” Sankey said. “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.
“And thus, to dispose of the game, the ‘forfeit’ word comes up at this point. That’s not a policy, and what you see are the bookends now for decision-making.”
Sankey said the SEC, through its third-party logistics and medical support team, conducted almost 350,000 COVID tests during the past year. He shared another statistic that led to what sounded like a warning. Of the 14 SEC football programs, only six have reached the 80 percent level of roster vaccination. Neither Florida coach Dan Mullen nor LSU coach Ed Orgeron would reveal what percentage of their roster has been fully vaccinated.
“That number needs to grow and grow rapidly,” Sankey said, which helps explain the conference’s new public service messaging: “The SEC Backs the Vax.”
“Let me be clear to our fans, to our coaches, to our staff members and to our student-athletes,” Sankey said. “COVID-19 vaccines are widely available. 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.
“With six weeks to go before kickoff, now is the time to seek that full vaccination. 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,” he said. “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.”
Unlike last year, when the SEC played a 10-game conference-only regular season as a way to navigate the pandemic, conference members are scheduled to play a full 12-game regular season with only one open date in 2021. Sankey noted the challenge of completing that schedule given recent examples of COVID disruption such as the North Carolina State baseball team being forced to leave the College World Series early because of a number of positive tests.
As SEC Media Days returned after COVID forced cancellation in 2020, Sankey addressed other off-field issues facing collegiate sports administrators. The July 1 enactment of name, image and likeness (NIL) rights for college athletes, which allows them to be paid by third parties for endorsements, promotional appearances and the like, has changed the game. Alabama is among the states that have passed laws legalizing NIL rights. Because the laws vary from state to state, the NCAA has put the burden of regulating NIL deals on individual conferences and schools.
Sankey advocated for a uniform standard through national legislation.
“Because state laws are either inconsistent or nonexistent, the NCAA rules can no longer resolve key issues,” Sankey said. “We need a federal solution. We understand it’s difficult to gather the support for such federal legislation. However, congressional action is necessary if we’re going to provide every student a clear, consistent and fair opportunity to benefit from their name, image and likeness.”
Sankey also addressed NCAA President Mark Emmert’s recent call to reconsider and perhaps reduce the NCAA’s traditional role in governing collegiate athletics by assigning more responsibility in some areas to the conferences and their member schools. Sankey said he will be “pleased” to have that dialogue, considering Division I alone includes 351 campuses and 32 conferences.
“The expectations, demands and pressures that are present on the campuses of this conference are not uniform across all of Division I, and expecting every conference to come together to debate, discuss and produce effective decisions for everyone is not our modern reality,” Sankey said. “We must begin to adapt.”