HOOVER, Ala. — To produce an exciting football season in front of frenzied stadiums, the Southeastern Conference has to stage one first.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey on Monday repeatedly urged those who are not vaccinated from COVID-19 to get that done in order to avoid the limitations and setbacks that accompanied a 2020 football season that will never be forgotten. Sankey made his remarks at the Wynfrey Hotel as SEC Media Days returned following a one-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, and it was the first time he addressed a room full of reporters since announcing his canceling of the league basketball tournament in Nashville on March 12, 2020.
"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 spread of the virus 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. 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."
After eliminating games against nonconference opponents, which scratched in-state rivalries such as Florida-Florida State and Georgia-Georgia Tech, the SEC was able to conduct 69 of a possible 71 contests. That included Alabama's 52-46 outlasting of Florida in the league championship in Atlanta, with only the Georgia-Vanderbilt and Ole Miss-Texas A&M games falling by the wayside.
During a stretch last August, when the Big Ten and Pac-12 were announcing the cancellations of their seasons, Sankey stood firm in being patient with his late September starting point. The Big Ten and Pac-12 eventually reversed course and elected to play.
"The potential absence of college football and the reality of an abbreviated season with limited attendance made us all realize how much we appreciate college football and what it means across our nation, but most importantly, I think we saw what it means to the young people who participate," Sankey said. "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.
"We had to make that change happen, and I'm proud of the role the SEC played in making certain there was a 151st consecutive season of college football."
Sankey is wanting the SEC's 14 football programs to achieve an 80% vaccination threshold and said Monday that six of the 14 had surpassed that clip. Florida, LSU and South Carolina, the three teams that opened Media Days on Monday, are not among the six.
"We're getting close to the threshold numbers that you need to be at," Florida's Dan Mullen said.
The SEC required a healthy 53-player roster last year in order to compete, and Sankey said that minimum remains in place for an upcoming season containing Georgia-Clemson and Alabama-Miami on the opening weekend.
"You hope not to have disruption, but hope is not a plan is the great cliche," Sankey said. "We still have roster minimums that exist, just like last year, but 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.
"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. We've not built in the kind of time we did last year, particularly at the end of the season, to accommodate disruption. 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."
Sankey was quick to reel off North Carolina State having to bail out of the College World Series due to a COVID outbreak and cited even more recent incidents, such as last Friday's postponement of the game between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, as well as the ongoing withdrawals leading up to Friday's start of the Tokyo Olympics.
The SEC's opening weekend also contains LSU's trip out to UCLA, which obviously could be altered by guidelines in and around Los Angeles.
"I expect we'll see 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 that we're going to prepare to play the season as scheduled," Sankey said. "I'm convinced we'll move forward to the Labor Day weekend start, but we will have to adapt to the virus. We don't have control of the COVID environment."
While Sankey said the NCAA's temporary rules governing name, image and likeness were "a necessary reality," he added that a uniform national standard is needed.
"Because state laws are either inconsistent or nonexistent, the NCAA rules can no longer resolve key issues," he 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."
When asked if the SEC and other Power Five leagues are closer to breaking off from the NCAA, Sankey said, "That's not the focus. These observations aren't just NCAA related. They are college athletics related."
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