Before the SEC announced its decision to move forward with a 10-game, conference-only football season beginning Sept. 26, a group of its players expressed concerns about safely playing a season amid the coronavirus pandemic during a call with conference officials.
The Washington Post obtained audio of the meeting, which took place on Wednesday — a day before the SEC unveiled its plans for fall sports — and included “more than a dozen” football players, along with members of the SEC’s medical advisory board and other top officials, including commissioner Greg Sankey.
During the call, per the Post, the players — members of an SEC “student-athlete leadership council — were told that there would be “outbreaks” of COVID-19 “on every single team in the SEC.”
“That’s a given. And we can’t prevent it,” one unidentified SEC official told the players.
The prospects of their universities opening and thousands of students returning to campus was a main concern of the players. One player, Ole Miss linebacker MoMo Sanogo, feared sitting next to students in class who could go out partying and ultimately infect football players. The official who responded said class sizes will be smaller, allowing students to sit in a socially-distanced matter.
The official admitted that the scenario was “not fair” to the players, and offered some suggestions. From the Post:
The answer Sanogo received shed light on the pressure that university presidents, who rely on college football for prestige and revenue, face to reopen their campuses this fall, even as the pandemic surges. “It’s one of those things where if students don’t come back to campus, then the chances of having a football season are almost zero,” an official who did not identify himself said.
The official told Sanogo that class sizes would be smaller so students can sit six feet apart from one another, and that face coverings should help keep students safe. But he admitted the arrangement was “not fair” to athletes, who might take every precaution but still be infected by the students who don’t.
He suggested that Sanogo, 21, remind the people around him to behave responsibly. “As un-fun as it sounds,” the official said, “the best thing that you can do is just try to encourage others to act more responsibly and not put yourself in those kinds of situations. I’m very comfortable with what we’ve done on campus. I’m concerned about what happens from 5 p.m. until 5 a.m.”
With so much uncertainty about how all of this will actually work, one player asked if it is worth it to have a season. Here’s how Sankey responded, per the Post:
Sankey, who earned a $2.5 million salary in 2018, responded: “Part of our work is to bring as much certainty in the midst of this really strange time as we can so you can play football in the most healthy way possible, with the understanding there aren’t any guarantees in life."
Another player wondered about the lasting effects of contracting the virus while Texas A&M linebacker Keeath Magee II said he appreciated the conference’s effort to address players’ concerns, but ultimately said what they heard was “not good enough.”
“We want to play. We want to see football. We want to return to normal as much as possible,” Magee said. “But it’s just that with all this uncertainty, all this stuff that’s still circulating in the air, y’all know it kind of leaves some of us still scratching my head. ... I feel like the college campus is the one thing that you can’t control.”
SEC responds to story
Hours after the Post’s story, the SEC released a statement about Wednesday’s call. The conference said it hosts videoconferences with the student-athlete leadership council to “engage in candid conversation, share information and develop greater understanding of issues important to our student-athletes.” The statement said the calls help to inform conference decisions and Wednesday’s call was held specifically to respond to questions “resulting from the unique environment produced by COVID-19.”
“The calls are intended to be confidential to encourage honest conversation. We are proud to provide our student-athletes with this forum and appreciate their willingness to engage with us on a regular basis,” the statement said.
The full statement is below:
Statement from the Southeastern Conference. pic.twitter.com/nBuwlyz8Tb— Southeastern Conference (@SEC) August 1, 2020
Sankey followed up the conference’s statement with a series of tweets.
“The call was intended to be confidential to encourage honest conversation and directly provide student-athletes with information and a forum for dialogue. We will work diligently to make the right decisions, with the best information available, in a dynamic and changing environment,” Sankey wrote.
“While no tweet or quote fully captures every aspect of any meeting, the student-athletes participating on Wednesday’s football leadership council videoconference concluded with this comment, “Thank you. We appreciate the information and hope we can do this again.”
SEC preparing for student population returning to campus
On Thursday, Sankey said SEC’s decision to delay the start of the season to Sept. 26 from Sept. 5 gives universities the opportunity for “the safe and orderly return to campus of their student populations and to provide a healthy learning environment during these unique circumstances presented by the COVID-19 virus.”
"This new schedule supports the safety measures that are being taken by each of our institutions to ensure the health of our campus communities,” Sankey said.
The SEC said it will monitor the “successes and challenges presented by return to competition in other sports.” The NFL’s return, of course, will be closely observed throughout college football.
Players can opt out of season
Players who feel unsafe playing in this environment have the option to opt out and keep their scholarships. Ra’Von Bonner, a running back for Illinois, was the first to do so. He cited having asthma and the risk of spreading the virus to his loved ones.
“I really love football. However, the risks are greater than the reward,” Bonner told the Chicago Tribune.
Caleb Farley, a Virginia Tech cornerback who is projected to be a first-round NFL draft choice, has also opted out, saying in a statement that “uncertain health conditions and regulations” influenced his decision.
Farley also cited the bevy of NFL players opting out, as well as the 2018 death of his mother to cancer.
“I tragically lost my mother to an illness and I cannot afford to lose another parent or loved one,” Farley said. “Though the competitor in me badly wants to play this season, I cannot ignore what’s going on in my heart and I must make the decision that brings me the most peace.”
Instead of suiting up for the Hokies, Farley will turn his focus toward his preparation for the 2021 NFL draft. How many other projected draft picks follow Farley’s lead remains to be seen.
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