In continuing to keep a fall season on track, Sankey, 56, is placed on one side of a charged divide over whether college football should be played this year. Yet he has avoided more emotional appeals made by some coaches and politicians who have argued against cancellation. Just as officials for schools and conferences who have opted out of fall football have cited the advice of medical experts, so has Sankey in explaining that the SEC will play a 10-game, conference-only schedule with a delayed starting date of Sept. 26.
“Were that advice to change, it certainly would be a stopping point,” he told “The Dan Patrick Show” Tuesday. “The indicators are we can right now do what we’re doing in a healthy way.”
The Big 12 is also moving forward with plans to play, announcing Wednesday that it would play 10 games, one of them nonconference, starting as early as Sept. 12. The other of the Football Bowl Subdivision’s Power Five conferences, the ACC, has not yet altered plans announced last week to play an 11-game schedule beginning Sept. 10.
In describing the SEC decision, Sankey referred to additional health protocols the conference has in place and added that fans must do their part by wearing masks and practicing social distancing. The process was painstaking in a conference whose teams lie in the football-mad South. The pressure intensified with President Trump’s tweets urging that the season go on.
“We’ve made decisions to avoid some of the time pressure I sense others are feeling,” he said. “We haven’t had our players in helmets and pads. We’ve spread our preseason preparation out. We’ve moved our kickoff back to allow our universities to get back to their fall semester order.”
The pressure is significant. Nebraska Coach Scott Frost, for instance, indicated Monday that the Cornhuskers might look for other places to play. At one point, it looked as if the SEC might face a decision about whether to go it alone among the Power Five.
“I don’t think that’s the right direction, really,” Sankey said Tuesday (via AL.com). “Could we? Certainly. So, there’s a difference between can you do something and should you do something in life. And so, we’re actually set up with our schedule, with our own health protocols, that we could if that was the circumstance operate on our own. I’m not sure that’s the wisest direction, but you know, there’s been a lot of interesting things [that] have happened since March in college sports.”
That’s in keeping with what he has said all along, even as this week’s tipping point appeared to have arrived for college football.
The “best advice I’ve received since covid-19 is: Be patient. Take time when making decisions,” he tweeted Monday, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus. “This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day. SEC has been deliberate at each step since March … slowed return to practice … delayed 1st game to respect start of fall semester.....Developed testing protocols … We know concerns remain. We have never had a [football] season in a covid-19 environment. Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying. We support, educate and care for student-athletes every day, and will continue to do so … every day.”
Sankey has also echoed Alabama Coach Nick Saban, who has said that players would be safer from the virus by staying within their football programs rather than “running around at home.”
“We’re focused on our members and our 10 games,” said Sankey, a New York native who has worked for the SEC since 2002 and took over as commissioner in 2015. “What we’ve done is create a quasi-bubble on our campuses for our teams and a quasi-bubble schedule for our conference.”
Sankey added that football players have access to “medical care, with health protocols around covid in this new environment compared to going to lift weights in a local gym. Who knows who is overseeing you? What kind of health expectations? What kind of workout? What kind of monitoring? That’s what we, without a doubt, are continuing to do, to support the healthy return to competition.”
Recent reports of coronavirus-related heart trouble are a new wrinkle officials have been forced to consider and are another example of the necessity for flexible thinking.
“We’ve been very deliberate in our decision-making,” Sankey added. “ … Our timeline is really based on the advice of a biostatistician who way back in April said to me: ‘This is a new virus. We have not been through this before. So the longer you take to make decisions the better information you will have available to make those decisions.'
“That has been wise counsel and counsel we have heeded every step of the way.”