Optimism is hard to find in college athletics of late.
That extends to the Southeastern Conference offices, one day after the league officially canceled all regular season and postseason games, spring football games and pro days for the rest of the 2019-2020 academic year. The one notable option left on the table was some form of practice, particularly spring football practice, after the SEC’s current suspension of all activity through April 15. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said on a teleconference Wednesday morning that while possible, the likelihood of spring football practice is not high.
“If you look at the national public messaging about no gatherings above 50, it’s certainly difficult to conduct any football practice under that limitation, and even small numbers have been communicated. 10 has been referenced, thereby making it impossible into May, as has been stated,” Sankey said. “I’m not going to be overly optimistic about the return to practice. We haven’t fully closed that opportunity, but I think practically, that window’s pretty narrow.”
Sankey’s teleconference with media, roughly 40 minutes long, was wide in scope.
Sankey pointed out that 11 of the conference’s 21 championships have been canceled: men’s basketball, gymnastics, equestrian, men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s tennis, baseball, softball and men’s and women’s outdoor track and field.
Two of those championships were slated to be held in Tuscaloosa, the softball and women’s tennis tournaments. University of Alabama Director of Athletics Greg Byrne said in a recent interview with TideSports.com that he was hopeful UA would regain those events in the near future, given the economic impact and community importance, and Sankey massaged those concerns.
“I’ll say definitively, I don’t think it’s wait another 14 years,” Sankey said. “We have a championships working group that’s one of our standing committees. We don’t just automatically right now put things forward without conversation from our membership, but I’m also confident we’re not going to be waiting 14 years for that opportunity to come back around.”
The loss of tournaments and loss of daily gate revenue of athletics events — on top of lost revenue from all postseason play, particularly the lucrative men’s and women’s basketball tournaments — has cast some interesting financial shadows on top of NCAA schools.
“The financial impact, candidly, has not been at the forefront of our conversations,” Sankey said. “We’ve made decisions based on the health and well-being of the people in and around our programs. There certainly are revenue implications, we have staff working through this and I’m certain every conference is working to assess the financial impact.”
That being the case, one of the more pressing issues is regaining the lost year of eligibility for athletes, particularly spring sport athletes that had their seasons discontinued before the halfway point. The NCAA has begun work on granting those athletes an additional year of eligibility, but the details are far from solidified.
Sankey said on the teleconference he recently received eight pages of analysis from the league’s compliance office on the subject of additional years of eligibility and problems that may arise as a result.
“The first read is that’s an appropriate step, from my perspective, but we have to understand the whole set of implications,” Sankey said. “I hope we’ll move through those rapidly because I think one of the assets for our young people is knowing definitively what their eligibility status will be going forward.
“I do want to say, I don’t think this is simply a senior issue. Everybody in our programs, particularly our spring sports, had their seasons disrupted. My encouragement is we take a broad look at what type of opportunities we offer going forward.”
One potential problem is that of scholarship numbers: in baseball, for instance, where scholarships are limited to 11.7 per team, a crop of unexpected returning seniors would throw most teams well beyond that limit once the freshmen enroll in the fall.
Scholarship numbers have been a debate for some time, particularly in equivalency sports such as baseball and softball, a debate that could be reinvigorated in this time of upheaval.
“We started last summer looking at the overall scholarship model with a working group that continued through the year,” Sankey said. “Our plan is to introduce, for conversation, alternatives. One is maintaining the current approach, and that work goes on. I don’t think, off the cuff, the current circumstances change the substance of our review. It’s been a really good exercise by both our staff and our members who are involved. We look forward to sharing that with the members of our conference over the coming months.”
In the interim, it seems most likely that the next organized SEC event will be SEC Media Days in July, once again taking place at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. Sankey is optimistic that event will go off without a hitch.
“I’m gonna be half-full right now and say we’re full steam ahead on Atlanta for our Media Days planning. Last Thursday morning, I was full steam ahead on playing a basketball tournament and was disrupted,” he said. “We’re going to prepare for disruptions, but we’re going to plan in July to have our Media Days opportunity as scheduled.”