College ball, even mighty SEC, now in real trouble
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.