At some point this week, the decision-makers of the Southeastern Conference, the presidents and athletics directors of the 14 campuses, will get together on Zoom and vote on whether to bring student-athletes in fall sports back to campus.
At that point, paths across the nation may start to diverge.
The Southeastern Conference hasn’t confirmed the widely-reported May 22 date, but athletics officials on at least two campuses made reference to the coming vote. LSU Executive Deputy Athletic Director Verge Ausberry told the Louisiana Economic Recovery Task Force Thursday, per the Baton Rouge Advocate and Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk made a similar statement on a video conference with local media, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. So if the cat isn’t out of the bag, it has at least clawed through the burlap and extricated its head and forepaws. Besides, the ticking of the clock on any sort of June return means it’s only logical that a decision is coming soon.
There are many factors that Dr. Stuart Bell and the other presidents will have to consider but some are starting to be a fait accompli. As states, particularly in the South, open up more and more, what are the pros and cons of bringing athletes back onto campus. Which is better, for instance? Having athletes at home, trusting to social distancing when they can essentially go to restaurants with their friends, or to get in a workout at the local Globo-Gym? Is that better or worse than a more strictly monitored situation with quick access to medical personnel, meals in a secure environment and Nick Saban enforcement of social distancing measures? Are they going to be more exposed to at-risk populations or less?
No one is yet advocating any sweaty 11-on-11 scrimmages with everyone scrummed together. The main activity would be scheduled weight room workouts and, for better or worse, Alabama’s facility is more than spacious enough to keep everyone on a shift more than six feet apart, with disinfecting managers and assistants ready to immediately sanitize every piece of equipment as soon as it has been used.
There are counter-arguments and they will be aired widely if the SEC does elect to bring players back in the next two to four weeks. My position has been, since March 13, to take things as slowly as possible. Yes, my job is affected by the decision to “bring back sports.”
That’s true of thousands of people in Tuscaloosa, from waiters to municipal employees. It doesn’t make me special. It does make me realize that Governor Kay Ivey hasn’t had an easy time making decisions — and other governors have moved more quickly in some cases, more slowly in some others. The fact is, the country isn’t unified over the best route to take and this could be a moment where college athletics is at a fork in the road. The SEC won’t do anything without unanimity among its members. Some conferences, for political or economic reasons, will head in one direction and others turning onto a different path. What happens in states where quarantine conditions are still in effect? What about those leagues that don’t have the same resources as the schools in the SEC? What will the NCAA Oversight Committee, which also has jurisdiction but may not want to be seen as the group that “killed college football,” come up with?
There are no perfect answers but a return to campus — which many student athletes also favor — might be a reasonable alternative.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt