There are three words behind the north end zone of A.W. Mumford Stadium, emblazoned at crossbar level behind the gleaming white goalposts:
'PROTECT THE BLUFF'
Sometimes you have to know when to protect the home field, or when just to stay home. When it’s time to make the smart play. When, in the case of football, it’s time to punt rather than take a gamble on an outsized risk.
That’s what the Southwestern Athletic Conference voted to do Monday, pushing back all its fall sports until 2021.
The Southwestern Athletic Conference watched and listened as other conferences suspended fall seasons or eliminated all nonconference football…
It’s a painful decision. It is hardly an ideal solution. But, at least, for now, it is the right choice.
Step back, SWAC presidents and chancellors said. Regroup. And hope that sports can resume after the new year. Right now that would seem to involve the arrival of some sort of effective vaccine — or, if we’re fortunate, vaccines — to take the fire out of the coronavirus pandemic.
But who knows? We may catch a break. We need a break in our fight with this horrible disease.
“We didn’t want to come out and say, ‘We’re postponing, and we’ll wait and see what we can do next,’ ” Southern athletic director Roman Banks said after the vote. “It was important for us to have a plan of action that can be put in place, which speaks to the work that our commissioner and administrators have done over the last few months.
“Obviously, there is a still a lot of work that has to be done, especially in the next 30 days as we work to set schedules and make other plans. What we have is a blueprint to work from and I feel good about that.”
This decision gives the SWAC and its member schools like Southern and Grambling the possibility of catching that break. Considering how hope has been on such short supply lately, at least that is worth something. But it is at the same time a difficult decision that will leave some strangely silent sporting venues across the South.
No sound of shoulder pads cracking and bands blaring at football games, or merry voices mingling at tailgate parties.
No thump of the ball arcing across a green field in women’s soccer, or smacking to the court just out of reach of an outstretched arm in women’s volleyball.
No image of a tight pack of cross country runners cresting a hill, their footfalls kicking up little puffs of dust.
SWAC schools plan to play seven-game football schedules after an eight-week training period starting in January. Six conference games and one nonconference game will be allowed. Even in shrunken form it will be asking a lot of college athletes to play two seasons — or at least one and two-thirds — within the same calendar year if we assume the 2021 fall campaign can be a return to normalcy.
But it shows a willingness to try on the SWAC’s part. It is similar to what other Football Championship Subdivision conferences like the Ivy League, the Colonial Athletic Association and the MEAC, like the SWAC an HBCU conference, have done. No one wants to be the one to jump out of line and just cancel everything. At least, not yet.
“Growing concern for safety” regarding the resurgent coronavirus pandemic was cited in the SWAC news release as a major factor behind the decision. It was about concern for student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans. The latter has been a big worry for Banks for months. His school and conference can’t count on megabucks TV contracts to help balance the books. That requires selling tickets, a prospect he was uncomfortable with from the beginning given the older, vulnerable fanbase Southern and other SWAC schools have. Add to that the disproportionate way the virus has impacted the Black community and the SWAC’s decision comes into sharper focus.
“We’ve got to give them confidence that they’re not going to a game to die,” Banks said candidly back in April.
So the best way to do business in this case was not to do business. Not risk so many and expend so much for the prospect of so much more sickness.
For the SWAC, this is the way to go. With any luck, the next six months will bring better ways to cope with this scourge of a disease than staying away, locking up, and waiting it out.
But it will be strange without SWAC sports going on this fall. It will be sad. Worse still is the fact our world is in such a state that it’s strange and sad how prudent this all sounds.
Sportswriter Robin Fambrough contributed to this column.