A dozen words.
That's all it took for Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey to send a sobering shock wave of reality to the fan bases, administrators, coaches and athletes of the country's most powerful and passionate athletic conference.
Asked during a Saturday interview on ESPN's "Marty & McGee" radio show to measure his concern for an autumn college football season as coronavirus cases soar with the summer heat throughout the South, Sankey replied: "We are running out of time to correct and get things right."
Those 12 words were spoken as news sank in that the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences have already announced they would be playing conference games only this fall, which will eliminate, among others, the highly anticipated — at least among Alabama fans — Southern California-Alabama game. Also lost will be Ohio State-Oregon matchup and Notre Dame facing Wisconsin at iconic Lambeau Field, the storied home of the NFL's Green Bay Packers.
In fact, the Big Ten and Pac-12 decisions leave Notre Dame without three key matchups — against Southern Cal, Wisconsin and Stanford — which means the Fighting Irish, if there's a season of any kind, may have to slip in an extra game or two against their unofficial football conference, the Atlantic Coast, to have anything approaching a full schedule.
But really, at this point, the biggest concern should be about having any season at all before the spring. Or to return to another quote from Sankey, when he was asked about the level of his concern going forward in the fall: "High to very high."
And this was before the 54 football-playing members of the 512-member National Junior College Athletic Association announced over the weekend that they would move their entire football season to the spring, as well as moving all other sports to a January or February start.
"I thought this was where we were headed," said Chattanooga State men's basketball coach Jay Price of the NJCAA decision that will dramatically alter the Tigers' athletic schedules. "I couldn't see us playing this fall with so much still unknown. They're just trying to keep everybody safe."
Trying to keep everybody safe should be the one and only goal of every person in charge of anything anywhere these days, though the economic health of both high school and college athletic departments everywhere could soon be on life support or worse if sports don't return soon. Especially the cash cow that is football.
And even moving football to the spring if the coronavirus pandemic worsens isn't guaranteed to save the sport from financial ruin.
Said American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco to ESPN: "We don't have much of an appetite for spring football. We're not confident that spring football, if we don't play in the fall, will even happen. Especially if there's no vaccine. And we're not really sure that it's not going to compromise part of the 2021 season if you're playing in the spring."
Aresco then added: "Also, if you have to practice in the middle of the winter to get ready for your spring football, you're practicing indoors, are you going to spread the virus more easily in that scenario? These are rational questions that have to be answered."
Let's be blunt. Rational left the building weeks ago unless you're discussing what's rational from a business model. Because with 40% of the Power Five Conferences having already chosen to eliminate nonconference football, with no vaccine in sight and the very real possibility that all this could get worse for months to come, even into the spring, all these big athletic departments that derive 80% or more of their revenue from football are justifiably terrified not to do everything possible to get football in before Thanksgiving.
That's undoubtedly the reason that Sankey also told the Marty & McGee Show: "That's why I don't feel any pressure because of somebody else's decisions. We're trying to make the right decisions for us, for the Southeastern Conference."
Of course, he also said: "The reality right now is the trends in our region, in our nation, are not in the positive direction for being able to have normal experiences."
The negative direction of trends is as follows: 33 states posted more new cases this past week than the week before, bringing the total number of U.S. cases since late winter to more than 3 million. The nationwide death total is now 135,000. In the Miami-Dade County area, positive COVID-19 tests have reached 33% over the past week. In the entire state of South Carolina, that number has grown to 22% testing positive the last week.
To return to Sankey's first words, everybody everywhere is running out of time to correct and get things right if anything is going to go right regarding the return of football or school in general come September.
But regardless of when college football or any other sport returns, Chattanooga State's Price has a message for all of us to consider moving forward: "I'm basically wearing a mask 24/7, and I hope everyone else will, too."