Col­lege ball, even mighty SEC, now in real trou­ble

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Colum­nist USA TODAY

Dan Wolken

The strangest part of the last four months in col­lege foot­ball has been watch­ing the so-called lead­ers of the sport’s most pow­er­ful con­fer­ence act­ing as if some of the fun­da­men­tal facts we’ve learned about COVID-19 do not ap­ply to their en­ter­prise.

As re­cently as mid-May, Alabama ath­letic di­rec­tor Greg Byrne said in an in­ter­view with the SEC Net­work that the “hope and plan right now is to play this fall with a full sched­ule and a full sta­dium” even as con­struc­tion work­ers at Bryant-Denny Sta­dium were fall­ing ill in clus­ters.

A month af­ter that, Texas A&M’s Ross Bjork ex­pressed op­ti­mism that the 50% ca­pac­ity limit im­posed by Gov. Greg Ab­bott for sport­ing events would be sig­nif­i­cantly in­creased by the time foot­ball sea­son rolled around.

There was even a sug­ges­tion, as

states like Ge­or­gia and Florida came out of lock­down, that the SEC might play on while other leagues lagged be­hind.

All the while, SEC schools rushed to get foot­ball play­ers back on cam­pus in early June. Against all logic, the in­fec­tious disease ex­pert who was help­ing to write the league’s guide­lines for those work­outs did not rec­om­mend fre­quent COVID-19 test­ing, lead­ing sev­eral schools to ini­tially say they would test only play­ers who were symp­to­matic.

“The prob­lem is, with our test­ing, it doesn’t tell us any­thing,” Dr. Ste­van Whitt of the Univer­sity of Mis­souri told The Ath­letic in ar­guably the most re­gret­table pub­lic com­ment from any med­i­cal of­fi­cial work­ing in sports dur­ing the en­tire pan­demic.

On Mon­day, all the delu­sion ended as SEC ADs emerged from an in-per­son meet­ing in Birm­ing­ham, Alabama. Though the league will wait at least a cou­ple of more weeks be­fore can­cel­ing non-con­fer­ence games like the Big Ten and Pac-12 have al­ready done, the truth was fi­nally laid bare: The SEC is very much at risk of some dras­tic de­ci­sions if the cur­rent COVID-19 tra­jec­tory across the league’s foot­print isn’t re­versed.

“(There were) a cou­ple phone calls last week where you re­al­ize ex­actly what you can see: that the pub­lic health trends are not what we had hoped, not what we were see­ing in May and June,” Com­mis­sioner Greg Sankey said on the “Paul Finebaum Show” on Mon­day. “There has to be more in­tent, more fo­cus on heed­ing the guid­ance that has been pro­vided on dis­tanc­ing, on gath­er­ing, on face masks, on hand san­i­ti­za­tion. As

I un­der­stand treat­ments are bet­ter, but we still have a lot of un­knowns and those are re­al­i­ties. And ev­ery­one of those con­ver­sa­tions has ended with, ‘It’ll be im­por­tant to watch what hap­pens over the next two or three weeks.’ ”

The sub­text of that com­ment could not be more clear. For all the air­time de­voted to COVID-19 mis­in­for­ma­tion mer­chants who cherry-pick statis­tics to sug­gest this virus is no big deal and en­gage in per­for­ma­tive whatabouti­sm to try to dis­credit health of­fi­cials, the virus will de­ter­mine whether SEC foot­ball is played, not the other way around.

Few things are more im­por­tant to the cul­ture and econ­omy of South­ern states as col­lege foot­ball, but even the most craven col­lege pres­i­dent or con­fer­ence com­mis­sioner would have a hard time

putting an un­paid, am­a­teur ath­lete on the field for the sake of a tele­vi­sion con­tract when a dan­ger­ous virus is still out of con­trol and hospi­tal re­sources in small col­lege towns might be scarce.

“We have to see change in pub­lic health trend to build the com­fort that we’ll have an op­por­tu­nity to com­pete this fall,” Sankey told Finebaum.

It might have been help­ful if peo­ple who work in col­lege ath­let­ics had ham­mered that point home months ago in­stead of wait­ing un­til the last pos­si­ble mo­ment to make clear that the be­hav­ior of fans was go­ing to di­rectly im­pact whether their fa­vorite teams would play.

But the ar­ro­gance with which too many peo­ple in this coun­try ap­proached COVID-19 from the be­gin­ning has also been a hall­mark of the con­ver­sa­tion around col­lege foot­ball. Too many ad­min­is­tra­tors have spent the last four months of­fer­ing noth­ing but happy talk and pub­licly pre­sent­ing the rosiest pos­si­ble sce­nario rather than speak­ing di­rectly to the mas­sive chal­lenges of pulling off a sea­son in a col­lege en­vi­ron­ment where any type of bub­ble isn’t pos­si­ble and there’s no fi­nan­cial in­cen­tive for the play­ers to take the kinds of health risks their pro­fes­sional coun­ter­parts are be­ing asked to take.

In fact, the mere sug­ges­tion that col­lege foot­ball wouldn’t go off as planned has been met with ou­trage.

Go back to March 27 when Kirk Herb­streit, the most prom­i­nent TV an­a­lyst in the sport, told ESPN ra­dio he would be “shocked” if the sea­son hap­pened this fall. “From what I un­der­stand, peo­ple that I lis­ten to, you’re 12 to 18 months from a vac­cine,” he said. “I don’t know how you let these guys go into locker rooms and let sta­di­ums be filled up and how you can play ball. I just don’t know how you can do it with the op­tics of it.”

But rather than take it as a warn­ing, Herb­streit got shouted down by fans who called him a fear­mon­ger. Since then, he’s barely said any­thing about the coro­n­avirus and oth­ers in a po­si­tion of power de­cided it sim­ply wasn’t worth the ha­rass­ment to talk about the re­al­ity of this fall. As it turns out, Herb­streit was the smartest of them all.

Years down the road, when the his­tory of how we got here is writ­ten, it will be filled with cu­riosi­ties like Herb­streit be­ing la­beled an alarmist and ADs talk­ing about full sta­di­ums be­ing feted for their op­ti­mism when all ev­i­dence showed that the op­po­site was true.

Now the sit­u­a­tion is too ur­gent to ex­plain in any other way than the one right in front of us: Col­lege foot­ball, even in the mighty SEC, is in real trou­ble.


SEC ath­letic of­fi­cials de­cided to see what the COVID-19 sit­u­a­tion is like at the end of the month be­fore de­cid­ing on a 2020 sea­son.

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