CECIL HURT: SEC paddling in ferocious waters as it tries to navigate coronavirus

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News
Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban takes the field with his team before the Georgia game at Bryant Denny Stadium, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday October 17, 2020.
Photo by University of Alabama

In August, the Southeastern Conference was standing on a shore deciding whether a rising river was navigable or not. That river was the coronavirus, the boat that the SEC was going to try and use to get across to the far shore was some semblance of a complete football season.

Discussions were held. Options were discussed. I’m not going to historically revise my own opinion, which was that the attempt should be made if it was made with the student-athletes in mind and enough impartial expertise indicating that the river might rage on but wouldn’t become impassable.

Those were difficult days. The SEC made its decision to launch a boat into those treacherous waters. Other decisions, including some by leagues that said they would stay on shore, followed. There was hope of new technology, perhaps a vaccine, perhaps a unified effort by society to maintain vigilance and safety rules.

That didn’t happen. No amount of debate will satisfy everyone on the reason why. Republicans will blame Democrats. Democrats will blame Republicans. Perhaps the biggest problem was that a public health issue became so politicized in the first place. Fight among yourselves, if you wish.

The facts now are this. The SEC, having made its initial decision, is now in the midstream. The options are to turn around and head back, or to keep paddling like mad and hope the boat doesn’t capsize before Dec. 19, when it is set to reach the opposite shore. 

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“I've run 41 marathons in my life, and I learned that halfway in a marathon is not 13.1 miles, it's someplace before miles 20 and 21,” SEC Comissioner Greg Sankey said this week. “I said, let me get through the games of Thanksgiving and then I'll feel comfortable.

"That’s changed, and so I have to acknowledge that (you're) troubled by what's happened this week with our postponements. There's still an opportunity to focus on the 19th, (but) we have to adjust further within our programs to maintain the health that we did such a great job on early on. ...

So I'm certainly shaken but not deterred.”

There are two additional problems for Sankey. First, he has lost what he termed the “luxury of time.” The SEC season ends in five weeks. Second, he isn’t the boat’s only captain. Eleven states means a patchwork of 11 different public health mandates.

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Nick Saban, a hint of frustration in his voice, pointed out one by-product of that on Thursday night. To him, the emphasis on contract tracing leaves some teams trying to make the crossing with just one paddle in the boat.

"We’ve been ‘round and around on this, even to the point where the people in the federal government, Dr. (Anthony) Fauci and (his) people, told us that if you’re gonna get this, you’re gonna get it in seven days. OK? That’s the science. So you’re probably going to get it within five days, but seven days max.

"So we can test guys out of this in five, six and seven (days) and let them come back in eight days and we’re having them quarantine for 14 days. So you really have to quarantine if you don’t have it – just because you’re around somebody – for longer than if you get it. You’re out for longer and you may not even get sick.

"We should use the science to make sure we keep people safe, but when we have science that verifies what safe is, then we should use that.”

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Sankey says much of that is beyond his control.

“Perhaps that advice will change," he said. "I think that would be helpful. But those public health officials involved are the ones guiding that, not conference commissioners.”

The immediate consideration appears to getting two teams to Atlanta next month in as fair a way as possible. Some teams that aren’t in that mix may see games moved or jettisoned entirely. Alabama’s remaining schedule, which does have a small bit of flexibility with a Dec. 12 opening, might change quickly. 

Those decisions will come by necessity, because the river is rising.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt