SEC braces for this week's start of legalized sports gambling in Mississippi

Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey gives the opening address of SEC Football Media Days in Atlanta at the College Football Hall of Fame in July 2018. (John Bazzemore)

Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey says the league is aiming for an on-time start to the college football season in September.

If there isn’t a season, Sankey figures we’ve all got bigger problems than missing football.

“If we’re not playing football in the fall,” Sankey said Thursday on WJXL-FM in Jacksonville, Florida, “I’d leave the football field and be thinking about what’s happening around us. If football is not an active part of our life in the fall, what’s happening around us becomes a real big question societally, economically and culturally.”

Speaking on the sports radio talk show in Jacksonville as well as the SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum Show on Wednesday, Sankey made clear the point of how imperative it is for college athletics to return with the 2020-21 academic year after spring sports were canceled in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. The reaction to the virus’ worldwide grip led to the unprecedented cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournaments and the College World Series.

But now the urge to get college sports back online is growing. Sankey said he spent two days earlier this week in video conferences with 96 SEC student-athletes whose perspective he said was “to get back at it."

“My focus is on football as scheduled,” Sankey said, “the week before (that) volleyball and the week before that soccer starting. The circumstances will guide that decision making. We want to be prepared.”

Unlike the major professional sports leagues, comprised each of 30-32 teams, college athletics is a much more unwieldy enterprise with hundreds of schools playing all across the country.

To that end, Sankey said it would be good but not imperative to have all of the 10 major football-playing conferences on the same page.

“The hope is we all move along together,” Sankey said. “To date, that’s been the conversation and collective thinking about how we may have to adjust. But it’s a very different situation from a pro league.

“There is room for different conferences to make different decisions. But we’re all interconnected. When we’re playing basketball tournaments there is no connection. We’re all in our arenas playing each other.”

Still, asked Sankey, would a couple of programs deciding they are unable to resume football stop everyone?

“I’m not sure it does,” he said. “But the ability for us to stay connected will remain important.”

More important are the 14 SEC schools spread across 11 states being able to act in a collective fashion. Even on such a boiled-down level compared to college football nationwide, there are hurdles to clear as different states are attempting to reopen at different rates. Louisiana, for example, is at least a couple of weeks behind states like Florida and Georgia.

“That’s the hard circumstance,” Sankey said. “We want to do this together, and we need to do this together. What are the elements that would result in differentials among our 11 states? Could a state have fewer fans, some fans, no fans? Could they not gather their team members at all?

"We’re now looking at what type of preparatory time is needed and how do we communicate that nationally. The NCAA has a role, because we govern practice time and practice dates nationally. Because we missed spring football and altered strength and conditioning, those have to change. Those start to inform the answer about, what if one does this and one can do that and one can do that or 10 cannot. Those will be the harder elements.”

Asked if having regular students back on college campuses is a prerequisite to having college athletics, Sankey replied: “Our universities have to move back toward normal operations. An element of that is a return of students. I can sit on any number of conference calls and learn we are adapting to new realities. Distance between us that is required. What testing is going to look like. What treatments are available — every day there is a new treatment.

“For us in college football, our universities have to be back in operation. We need to be having a semester. But there may be more online content delivery. There may be more spacing in classrooms, which alters class schedule patterns.”

Sankey said he hoped the individual SEC states would continue to follow “the healthy course” toward reopening and not create situations that might jeopardize the whole notion of trying to restore elements of normal life like college athletics.

“Our hope is people continue to pursue … what I consider to be radical measures now so we can get through this, learn treatments, figure out how to manage ourselves socially and get back to some type of normal function sooner rather than later,” Sankey said.

“Hope is not a plan, but right now the desire would be to have 11 states and 14 institutions moving forward in a collective manner and connected nationally, so we can celebrate the return of college sports.”

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