The Southeastern Conference has announced that players who choose not to play sports in the fall because of health and safety concerns related to coronavirus will still have their scholarships honored by their schools.
The action was recommended by the league's athletic directors and the motion was approved unanimously by the league's presidents and chancellors.
The news comes at a time when conferences and schools are grappling with decisions on how and if they will play their fall sports as scheduled, and the SEC's commitment to scholarships provides relief for athletes who had questions about their statuses going into an uncertain semester.
The league's news release did not address whether a player's decision to sit out would still count as a year of eligibility.
“SEC universities are committed to full support of its student-athletes, whether or not a student-athlete decides to participate in sports during these uncertain times,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. “SEC student-athletes have frequently expressed their desire to compete, but it is important for student-athletes and their families to know the financial support committed to them by their institutions will not be at risk because of health concerns presented by the current pandemic.”
The SEC's 14 athletic directors met at league headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama, on Monday, and, on Tuesday, the conference announced that it was postponing volleyball, soccer and cross country competitions through at least Aug. 31.
The fate of football remains uncertain. Sankey has said in several interviews that public health trends must improve before the SEC makes a decision by late July. The timeline allows league officials to observe the return of the NBA and MLB, plus the start of NFL training camp.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences announced last week that they would be playing league-only football schedules. Smaller leagues like the Ivy League and the Atlantic 10 Conference have postponed fall athletics to the spring, while the Patriot League has canceled its fall sports entirely.
The Southwestern Athletic Conference is also scheduled to meet early next week to discuss moving its fall sports to the spring.
Meanwhile, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 72,045 new COVID-19 cases and 926 deaths nationally on Thursday — the highest total of the year. On Friday, Louisiana reported 2,179 new cases and 24 deaths.
The SEC's decision applies to all sports, and it allows all of the players within its member schools to maintain their financial status. It is a substantial financial commitment. Athletic student aid at LSU totaled $17.1 million in 2018-19 and accounted for more than 10% of the department's total expenses.
“I’m proud LSU was at the forefront of this measure," LSU athletic director Scott Woodward said in a statement. "Our message to our student-athletes must be clear and unequivocal — we support you and we will stand by you in your decision making during this time whether you can compete or not. Your scholarship and the education and opportunities it affords will be protected here at LSU and across the SEC.”
The support ultimately offers an athlete a choice, and, at least for now, the SEC appears to be bracing for a football season as scheduled. A football player can choose to proceed or not.
The NCAA released thorough guidelines Thursday that outline how its members should return to sports in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
Within the guidelines, schools should conduct daily self-health checks and testing players for COVID-19 within 72 hours of competition for high contact risk sports, and they included considerations for pausing or discontinuing athletic activities in certain circumstances.
Asymptomatic people who test positive must isolate 10 days from the date of their diagnosis,and people who do develop symptoms must wait until at least 72 hours have passed since their recovery, and at least 10 days since symptoms first appeared.
Any individual with "high-risk" exposure — defined as any situation in which there has been greater than 15 minutes of close contact (less than six feet apart) with an infectious individual — should quarantine for 14 days, a time frame that can be potentially devastating to a football team in the middle of a season.
The NCAA also said schools should consider pausing or discontinuing athletic activities if local public health officials state that there is an inability for the hospital infrastructure to accommodate a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations.
The guidelines included a chart that showed the recent spike in cases is almost twice as high as where the NCAA projected in late April the state of the virus would be.
"Today, sadly, the data point (is) in the wrong direction," NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. "If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic."