In remarks delivered at SEC media days in Hoover, Ala., Sankey touted the effectiveness and benefits of coronavirus vaccines while trying to persuade holdouts that they could have a strong incentive to get their doses, in addition to personal health considerations.
Only six of the SEC’s 14 football teams have reached a target of 80 percent vaccination, Sankey revealed.
“That number needs to grow, and grow rapidly,” he said. “We have learned how to manage through a covid environment, but we do not yet have control of a covid environment.”
“We know nothing is perfect,” he said, “but the availability and the efficacy of the covid-19 vaccines are an important and incredible product of science. It’s not a political football.”
As Sankey noted, he does not have the power to unilaterally impose a rule such as mandatory forfeits if a school can’t field a team amid an outbreak. That would have to get a sign-off from the conference’s athletic directors. He pointed out, however, that the SEC has not “built in the kind of time we did last year, particularly at the end of the season, to accommodate disruption.”
For its 2020 season, the SEC left open the week before its Dec. 19 conference title game to allow for the rescheduling of games derailed by the pandemic. After a season that featured, at one point, four of the SEC’s seven games called off in one week, the conference found itself not only staging five games during that December bye week but also three more on the same day that Alabama beat Florida for the SEC title.
The SEC was able to do that, however, because it decided before the season to play a conference-only schedule. At least for the time being, it is going back this year to also playing nonconference games, including a high-profile Week 1 matchup of Alabama and ACC stalwart Miami, which would make it much trickier to schedule makeup dates.
Sankey said that unless SEC schools revise their schedules with contingency plans similar to those of last year, their teams “have to be fully prepared to play their season as scheduled.”
“Which is why embedded in my remarks is the vaccination motivation,” he added.
SEC teams that reach an 85 percent vaccination threshold no longer have to test their players as often and are not required to wear masks indoors at athletic facilities. In addition, vaccinated players who are asymptomatic won’t be subject to the same levels of contact tracing and quarantining that sidelined swaths of rosters at times after a relative handful of positive tests.
Sankey’s remarks echoed comments last week from Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who said at his conference’s media days: “We certainly are going to do everything we can to encourage vaccination. I think it’s very shortsighted to not get vaccinations.”
Bowlsby asserted that the emergence within the pandemic of the highly transmissible delta variant could be something of “a blessing for us because it punctuates the fact that we’re not done with this yet.”
“If indeed the delta variant is as virulent and as infectious as it’s been reported to be, not getting vaccinated, you’re rolling the dice in terms of whether you’ll contract the virus,” Bowlsby said. “And beyond that, for a student-athlete, you’re also rolling the dice on whether or not you’re going to be able to participate because you’re going to be in a testing protocol if you’re not vaccinated.”
To Sankey, the benefits of inoculation are overwhelming.
“When people are fully vaccinated,” he said Monday, “we all have the ability to avoid serious health risks, reduce the virus’s spread and maximize our chances of returning to a normal college football experience and to normal life.
“With six weeks to go before kickoff,” the SEC commissioner continued, “now is the time to seek that full vaccination.”
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