SEC too tight-lipped about COVID-19 data

- Dan Wolken Colum­nist USA TO­DAY Sports · College Football · American Football · Southeastern Conference · Atlanta · Florida · Missouri · Georgia · HBO · Louisiana State University · National Collegiate Athletic Association · Mark Emmert · Alabama · Ed Orgeron

The ques­tion Wed­nes­day seemed to stump SEC com­mis­sioner Greg Sankey for a mo­ment:

What would con­sti­tute a suc­cess­ful sea­son for his league in 2020?

As the SEC pre­pares to open play Satur­day of a 10-game, con­fer­ence-only sea­son un­like any other in his­tory, Sankey’s an­swer fo­cused on Dec. 19. That’s the day col­lege football has set­tled on for con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship games, and the SEC plans to have two teams in At­lanta play­ing for the ti­tle.

“To­day it’s a start so we’re close to the start­ing line,” Sankey said. “That’s nowhere near the fin­ish line, and we re­ally de­fine that by nam­ing an SEC cham­pion this year.”

Though it was al­most cer­tainly an over­sight to a ques­tion he wasn’t ex­pect­ing, it was no­table that Sankey’s def­i­ni­tion of suc­cess for the SEC did not in­clude any ref­er­ence at all to keep­ing play­ers and staffers safe, min­i­miz­ing COVID-19 out­breaks or en­sur­ing that play­ers who con­tract the virus are not go­ing to suf­fer long-term com­pli­ca­tions.

Of course, we know the SEC can’t re­ally guar­an­tee any of that. More prob­lem­atic, we have no idea how hard they’ve even tried.

Make no mis­take, the SEC is go­ing to have its cham­pi­onship game Dec. 19 re­gard­less of what hap­pens in the next sev­eral weeks. They are past the point of no re­turn, and from what we’ve gath­ered over the first few weeks of the col­lege football sea­son, the bar doesn’t seem par­tic­u­larly high to keep the train on track. Sure, it might be a colos­sal mess with pos­i­tive tests, con­tact trac­ing is­sues, game post­pone­ments and de­mol­ished depth charts, but it’s go­ing to hap­pen one way or the other.

Is that suc­cess? Per­haps, in a way. But what’s the cost of that suc­cess? We don’t have any real idea, par­tic­u­larly in the SEC, be­cause we don’t know very much about what the con­di­tions have been in those pro­grams.

Out of the 14 SEC schools, only Florida has been reg­u­larly up­dat­ing its COVID-19 num­bers. Oth­ers have been in­fre­quent or shared anec­do­tally, such as Mis­souri coach Eli Drinkwitz re­veal­ing Tues­day that seven play­ers were in quar­an­tine for ei­ther test­ing pos­i­tive or con­tact trac­ing. Some schools, like Ge­or­gia, have been so tight with their COVID-19 in­for­ma­tion it took a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quest just to get a lit­tle bit of months-old data.

In an in­ter­view with HBO’s Real Sports in July, Sankey was eva­sive and de­fen­sive when asked about the num­ber of pos­i­tive cases within the league but made sure to ham­mer home the talk­ing point that play­ers were safer work­ing out on cam­pus than off.

Maybe that’s true, but when you hear LSU coach Ed Org­eron say last week that “most of our play­ers have caught it,” you sim­ply can’t ac­cept that talk­ing point as dogma.

And when you hear coaches talk so cav­a­lierly about how many of their play­ers have had COVID-19 and sub­se­quently al­lude to the com­pet­i­tive ben­e­fit of that devel­op­ment — you don’t have to test them again for 90 days! — the SEC’s gen­eral de­fi­ance of ba­sic trans­parency makes it seem as if there’s some­thing they don’t want us to know about.

In that vein, col­lege ath­letes rights ad­vo­cate Ramogi Huma sent a let­ter Tues­day to NCAA pres­i­dent Mark Em­mert ask­ing for the gov­ern­ing body to open an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether COVID pro­to­cols are be­ing fol­lowed on cam­puses.

The let­ter, sent on be­half of the Na­tional Col­le­giate Play­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, cites a re­cent sur­vey from the Na­tional Ath­letic Train­ers As­so­ci­a­tion in which re­spon­dents said just 35 per­cent of col­lege ath­letes and 47 per­cent of coaches and staffers were fully com­pli­ant with safety pro­to­cols.

“Col­lege ath­letes must have ro­bust, uni­form COVID pro­tec­tions,” Huma wrote. “Cur­rently, there are a dizzy­ing array of COVID pol­i­tics within and across con­fer­ences. A num­ber of these poli­cies do not in­cor­po­rate best prac­tices re­gard­ing COVID in ath­let­ics. Many play­ers lack in­for­ma­tion about what those pro­to­cols are and whether or not there is any re­course at all if they are not fol­lowed.”

The SEC is a mi­cro­cosm of the con­fu­sion. At Alabama, play­ers are be­ing tested ev­ery day. At other schools, it’s two PCR tests dur­ing the week and an anti­gen test be­fore a game. The Big Ten’s de­ci­sion to play be­gin­ning in Oc­to­ber was con­tin­gent on se­cur­ing anti­gen tests that can be ad­min­is­tered daily. The SEC thinks its plan, which in­cludes con­tact trac­ing sys­tems, is the “gold stan­dard,” as Sankey said, even though the league is test­ing less fre­quently.

“The other leagues (Big Ten and Pac 12) aren’t play­ing right now and we are three days away,” Sankey said. “And if and when they do play, we’ll be in­ter­ested to see what we might learn from them.”

But what have we learned from the SEC, which de­layed its sea­son to Sept. 26 in or­der to get through the re-open­ing of cam­puses and get more data from other sports that al­ready re-started? Not much, other than it seems that a fairly sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of play­ers have had the coro­n­avirus at a few schools.

In the NFL, which is re­leas­ing its test­ing num­bers ev­ery week, it seems we have a lot more con­fi­dence than we did a couple months ago that it can pull off a sea­son while min­i­miz­ing the num­ber of play­ers who have had COVID-19. Col­lege football has of­fered us no such as­sur­ances.

If we knew the SEC’s ac­tual num­bers, would it make us more con­fi­dent or less about the wis­dom of try­ing to do this in the mid­dle of a pan­demic with an un­pre­dictable virus whose long-term im­pact is un­known?

Would it give us a dif­fer­ent view of whether this sea­son is ac­tu­ally a suc­cess or a money grab that is putting peo­ple’s health in danger?

We don’t know be­cause the SEC has told us it’s not our busi­ness to know, and that’s too bad given the breadth of this pub­lic health cri­sis. Per­haps we can in­deed cel­e­brate a suc­cess if the SEC fin­ishes its sea­son with a cham­pi­onship game Dec. 19, but it is not un­qual­i­fied.

If the cost is wide­spread sick­ness, un­nec­es­sary spread of dis­ease and, God for­bid, a ter­ri­ble out­come for any­one in­volved, it will only be a Pyrrhic vic­tory for the sport.

 ?? JOHN BAZEMORE/AP ?? The South­east­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nally begins play this week­end.
JOHN BAZEMORE/AP The South­east­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nally begins play this week­end.
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