HOOVER, Ala. — The last time Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey stood in front of a room full of reporters, he had to do what he called the “unimaginable.”
Speaking inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on March 12, 2020, Sankey laid out the dramatic impact COVID-19 had caused so rapidly on the landscape of college sports.
By the end of that fateful day, the Men’s and Women’s College World Series had been canceled, the rest of the baseball and softball regular season on permanent pause. Tennis, golf and other spring sports met the same fate. The SEC men’s basketball tournament — the very reason Sankey was in Nashville to begin with — was canceled just that morning.
“It’s a reminder that not only do the times change, but the times change quickly,” Sankey said Monday at 2021 SEC Football Media Days at The Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Alabama.
Now in his seventh season at the helm of the premier conference in college athletics, Sankey stressed the importance of forging ahead in the midst of so many unknowns. COVID cases are spiking once again thanks to the Delta variant. Many players, coaches and staff remain, to the league’s dismay, unvaccinated against the virus. And if that wasn’t enough, name, image and likeness legislation has surged to the forefront as the NCAA’s amateurism model stands on shaky ground.
“Our present reality highlights the need for a national dialogue on what is expected of college sports, be it health care, educational certainty, career transition, examining the economics or myriad other issues,” Sankey said.
On Monday in front of dozens of reporters from around the league, Sankey did his best to address the problems the SEC faces with fewer than seven weeks to Week 1 kickoff.
The ‘vaccination motivation’
Six of the conference’s 14 teams have reached the desired 80 percent threshold for vaccination against COVID-19, an important benchmark in limiting the potential spread of the virus throughout a program.
But Sankey implored the eight SEC teams who have yet to reach that milestone to hurry up.
“Let me be clear to our fans, to our coaches, to our staff members, and to our student-athletes: COVID-19 vaccines are widely available,” he said. “They’ve proven to be highly effective. And when people are fully vaccinated, we all have the ability to avoid serious health risks, reduce the virus’ spread, and maximize our chances of returning to a normal college football experience and to normal life.”
Without a vaccine during the hectic, abbreviated 2020 season, 139 regular-season games were canceled or postponed because of issues with the virus, according to CBS Sports. Sixteen of them were within the SEC.
That led to a ton of shuffling within the league-wide slate last fall, but Sankey made it clear such assistance won’t be made for teams who see outbreaks if players choose not to get vaccinated.
“We’ve not built in the kind of time we did last year, particularly at the end of the season, to accommodate disruption,” he said. “And unless we’re going to do that, our teams are going to have to be fully prepared to play their season as scheduled, which is why embedded in my remarks is the vaccination motivation.”
A federal solution
On June 30, a day before laws in six states — including Mississippi — permitted college athletes to cash in on their name, image and likeness, the NCAA adopted an interim policy suspending its own NIL regulations.
But Sankey knows that the short-term solution won’t be enough.
“The NCAA’s temporary rules governing name, image, and likeness were a necessary reality, but those interim policies are no substitute for a uniform national standard,” he said. While we all will benefit from a standard that supports the interests of student-athletes while preventing exploitative practices with policies that can be understood and administered by universities and colleges at every level, while also providing prospective student-athletes with clarity as they are recruited nationally across state lines and have to understand the different name, image, and likeness laws.
“Because state laws are either inconsistent or nonexistent, the NCAA rules can no longer resolve key issues,” Sankey added. “We need a federal solution.”
But Sankey — who said most of his civic expertise was gleaned from the Schoolhouse Rock song “I’m Just a Bill” — knows gathering the support for federal legislation that’s easier said than done.
“Can I predict an outcome?” Sankey said. “I cannot. If that’s where we are, we’re going to be dealing with this tension, we’re going to learn a lot. Obviously, we have in the last three weeks, we’ll learn a lot the next three months, and we’ll see how that guides us if, in fact, there is no federal legislation.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.