Rabalais: Five items (blow up football scheduling; leave Birmingham) to add to new SEC commissioner Greg Sankey’s to-do list _lowres

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey said on a radio program Wednesday that the league's coronavirus case numbers last week were "in the low single-digits to zero," using a data collection that Sankey said has some school officials confident they can proceed with a football season.

Sankey told host Clay Travis on "Outkick the Coverage" that one of the SEC's presidents told him that they're comfortable with the season and "keep people healthy." A major obstruction is educating players "how you conduct yourself on your own time."

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The interview occurred a day after the SEC announced the start of volleyball, soccer and cross country competitions will be delayed through at least Aug. 31 — a timeline that allowed the league to leave its football season untouched for now while addressing the safety of its other sports.

Sankey has said in multiple interviews that league officials are concerned with the negative trend of COVID-19 in the SEC's region. Positive cases are spiking in almost every state, and Louisiana and Alabama have both issued statewide mask mandated within the past week.

Key political and athletic officials have persisted that college athletics can proceed safely with seasons as planned.

Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Baton Rouge on Tuesday and told a roundtable of people that included Gov. John Bel Edwards, LSU coach Ed Orgeron and higher education officials that he is "very confident" that universities can "develop plans to safely reopen campuses and restart sports program."

Orgeron said "football is the lifeblood of our country," and that the LSU football team has learned from its initial spike of COVID-19 when players first returned to campus.

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The total number of cases began with a group of five to six players, a source told The Advocate, and a portion of LSU's football players were quarantined after attending bars in Tigerland.

"They learned their lesson," Orgeron said Tuesday. "They're not going to a party anymore, I promise you. We had our spike. But right now I can tell you this can be handled."

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Most SEC schools have not publicly released their COVID-19 information, unlike other major college programs like Clemson, Kansas State and Texas, which have.

The safety of players on campus has been a debate since the initial spread of the virus. There’s an argument that the players are safer at their athletic program’s multi-million dollar facility in a somewhat controlled environment than they are at home.

Sankey told Travis that part of the reason the SEC shut down all sports back in March was because “there were so many unknowns” and they had to “think about what that meant for young people.”

“We disrupted the foundation of their lives, their rhythm, their opportunities,” Sankey said.

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Meanwhile, state and local governments made changes that impacted the circumstances around the players. In one region, gyms were reopened, and Sankey said he spoke with a player who had gone to two different gyms on the same day for two different workouts.

“You don’t know the gym,” Sankey said. “You don’t know who’s overseeing that. You don’t know the hygiene policies of that facility. In our athletic programs, you have vetted medical professionals that do this on a daily basis.”

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This reasoning, in part, is why the SEC allowed its players to return to campus on June 8. Since then, the NCAA has allowed athletic programs to begin a scaled return to competition.

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Since Monday, football teams can now spend up to eight hours per week on weight training and conditioning and can also arrange two hours per week of film study. Starting July 24, teams can hold in-person meetings and conduct walk-through practices with footballs.

Some professional sports leagues — such as NASCAR and Major League Soccer — have already restarted play, and the NBA and MLB are paced for a return by the end of the month. The return of pro sports has provoked the question: If those sports can happen, why can’t college football?

Sankey said there are key differences. Professional leagues like the NBA are playing in “bubble” locations where players can be isolated — a luxury college athletics cannot create. Pro leagues also are focused on a single sport, while the SEC must manage 14 sports and, subsequently, the hundreds of personnel involved.

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But the gradual return of pro sports has given the SEC even more reason to be patient with its ultimate decision. Sankey said the start of NFL training camp on July 28 “is an important opportunity” to see whether football practices are successful.

The SEC has repeatedly pegged “late July” for an ultimate decision on the fate of its football season. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already canceled their nonconference games — a decision that ACC, Big 12 and SEC officials have indicated was made too soon.

The cancellations had a small effect on the SEC: Alabama’s Sept. 5 game against Southern Cal and Texas A&M’s Sept. 19 game against Colorado were both canceled. Sankey said “the opportunities will be there” for both schools to fill those games with other teams “should they move down that pathway.”

The ACC instead decided to postpone the start of its Olympic fall sports until September, and, on Tuesday, the SEC followed with its similar action.

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Sankey said “right now, I can envision different directions,” and it’s possible that the SEC also cuts loose its nonconference games and plays league games only. The SEC has drawn up multiple scenarios for “a long, long time,” Sankey said.

The SEC has also explored preserving its annual in-state rivalries with ACC teams. Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Kentucky-Louisville and South Carolina-Clemson are all scheduled for Nov. 28 (the final week of the regular season).

Sankey said the league has sought to preserve each of its nonconference games and has been working "for weeks and months" with their medical teams to have common testing protocol, oversight, reporting and isolation "so that we can have healthy competition among nonconference teams."

"We're going to keep pursuing that with the idea that those games are important," he said.

Extending the conference schedule to 10 games is a likely scenario in a league-only season, Sankey said. The SEC’s normal nine-game schedule “doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said, because a debate naturally emerges on which team gets the extra home game. “So you’re going to be at an even number if you have to go to that,” Sankey said.

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"Outkick the Coverage" described Sankey’s interview as “a positive outlook for the return of football this fall” — a different perspective from the bleak reception that spread when the commissioner told ESPN’s Paul Finebaum Monday “we have to see a change in public health trend to build the comfort that we’ll have an opportunity to compete this fall.”

Positive, negative or not, Sankey has repeated that the SEC’s football season hinges on whether there will be a positive trend in public health. He told Travis the same.

“There is concern,” Sankey said. “We’re dealing with an uncertainty… We’re in a situation where we have incomplete information, and the information you have doesn’t tend to say people are paying attention and we’re having the right kind of trend.”

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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.