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Opinion: When SEC commissioner is 'troubled' by COVID-19 impact on college football, we must listen

Dan Wolken

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is college football’s most disciplined, careful messenger, a man who has conditioned himself to reduce every thought in his head to its most bland, non-controversial form for public consumption. He is the Dikembe Mutombo of swatting away hypotheticals, and his answers to most questions are meant to be as satisfying as 50-calorie beer. 

So when Sankey suggests that the college football season is in some real trouble, as he did Wednesday during a media conference call, it’s probably wise to pay attention. 

“I have to acknowledge (we’re) troubled by what’s happened this week,” Sankey said. “There’s still an opportunity to focus on (Dec.) 19th, but we have to adjust further within our programs to maintain the health that we did such a great job of early on.”

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey  is "troubled" by the COVID-19 impact on college football, particularly his league.

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The reference to Dec. 19 is the date of the SEC championship game in Atlanta, which seemed on track to happen as scheduled until the Week from COVID-19 Hell. 

But just over the last several days, four games that were supposed to be played this Saturday had to be postponed due to positives tests and contact tracing issues at Missouri, Texas A&M, Auburn, Mississippi State and LSU. One more game, Vanderbilt at Kentucky, has been in doubt but seemingly will be played pending further tests this week. Meanwhile, Arkansas will play at Florida this week without head coach Sam Pittman, who tested positive on Monday. 

“In normal times our experience this week would be nothing short of extraordinary,” Sankey said. “This year, with nothing being ordinary, this is a week unlike any other. I’ve repeatedly said the circumstances around the virus will guide our decisions. The reality is the virus, in some circumstances, determines our direction.”

Suddenly, that direction isn’t necessarily pointing toward a positive conclusion.

There’s no clear answer why the SEC, which has been testing players and coaches three times a week for quite a while now, has suddenly become the center of the COVID universe in college sports. 

Multiple factors likely had a hand in it, tracking right alongside the spike in cases nationally. One popular theory swirling in college sports circles is that some players let down their guard over Halloween weekend and that the cases have subsequently been incubating in their football facilities over the last 10 days.

A few SEC teams who had recent bye weeks also allowed players to go home for a few days, which might or might not have exposed them via friends and relatives who aren’t in their quasi-bubble on campus. Alabama coach Nick Saban said he had serious reservations about letting players go home, but didn’t have the stomach to tell them they couldn’t. 

“Everyone trusts their family,” Saban said. “I trust my family. But no one knows where Uncle Tommy has been. You have to be careful.”

In a way, perhaps it’s a minor miracle the SEC and much of college football has even gotten this far. For all the public confidence administrators were projecting in May, June and July, about being able to pull off a season, many of them would privately acknowledge that it was going to be a logistical mess and might not get off the ground at all. 

That’s not just about the number of positive tests, which has been a major issue at some schools, but also the cascading impact of contact tracing requirements being managed by local health departments, which can sideline multiple players who may or may not get sick.

Plus, when the SEC established that teams needed to have 53 scholarship players available to play including one quarterback, seven offensive linemen and four defensive linemen, those numbers don’t just take COVID-19 into account. Between opt-outs, suspensions and injuries, it doesn’t take much of an outbreak to drop a team below the line. While Auburn is dealing with 10 positive cases this week, according to coach Gus Malzahn, Texas A&M only has two and still can’t play. 

“We had seven straight weeks without any positives,” Malzahn said. “But we knew there was probably going to be a week or so we had to deal with things.”

Indeed, everyone went into this season understanding that disruptions were going to be the norm and that teams could end up playing an unequal number of games or perhaps even play different opponents than they anticipated based on availability. 

Because of COVID-19, Alabama might not get a chance to avenge last year's loss to LSU.

But the urgency of Sankey’s words related to this week’s events was notable because that’s not the kind of language he typically uses. He even admitted at one point, he would have only felt comfortable about reaching the finish line if the SEC could get through Thanksgiving without a major mess.

“Obviously that’s changed,” he said. 

The SEC may not be able to get all this week’s postponed games in — there’s no obvious landing spot for Alabama-LSU, for instance — but most of the league has already played six games. After this weekend, there are four Saturdays left until Dec. 19. It’s doable, but there’s not much runway left. 

And, of course, with the coronavirus is still in charge, there’s no guarantee we won’t be doing this again next week and the week after that. 

The reality for college football as we get into mid-November is that the No. 1 (Alabama), No. 3 (Ohio State) and No. 6 (Texas A&M) teams in the Amway Coaches Poll have had games canceled or postponed this weekend and the No. 4 team (Clemson) didn’t have its starting quarterback the last two weeks due to a COVID-19 infection. 

We don’t remotely have control of this situation as a country, and we certainly don’t in college football. The fact someone as cautious as Sankey acknowledged how fragile the next month or so could be is a flashing red siren for the sport. The finish line of the season may not be that many weeks away, but getting there is going to be a white-knuckle ride.