ARLINGTON, Texas — Pop star Olivia Rodrigo met with president Joe Biden on Wednesday in the nation’s capital as part of an effort to encourage young people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
About 1,300 miles away, deep in the heart of Texas, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, minus the heels and vocal attributes, delivered much of the same message as the pop star herself.
Kids, get vaccinated.
In a preview of what is sure to be a theme among league commissioners during July’s conference media day circuit, Bowlsby kicked off Big 12 media days here with a news conference that largely focused on vaccination. Standing on a stage in front of hundreds of reporters inside AT&T Stadium, he used his platform to encourage Big 12 athletes—and everyone else—to get vaccinated, making a pointed plea to players as the delta variant of COVID-19 creeps across the country.
“Frankly, anyone not getting vaccinated is taking unnecessary and unwarranted risks,” Bowlsby said. “It's shortsighted to not get vaccinated. If indeed the delta variant is as infectious as it is reported to be, not getting vaccinated is rolling the dice. As student athletes, you're also rolling the dice on whether you're going to participate.”
For months now, this issue has worried college athletics administrators across the country—that not enough of their athletes will get vaccinated, potentially resulting this fall in similar COVID-19 protocols and virus-related disruptions that encumbered the 2020 season. In May, college officials and medical experts expressed their concern about the number of athletes who were eschewing the shot because of religious beliefs, conspiracy theories and misplaced guidance from others.
Administrators and doctors were working to normalize the vaccine by holding educational seminars with athletes and their families, bringing vaccination sites to campuses and implementing protocols to incentivize players to get the shot.
Two months later, vaccinations have increased around the sport, but Bowlsby’s comments are an indicator that they’re not good enough, especially with the new variant wreaking havoc in America.
“The delta variant may be a blessing because it punctuates that we’re not yet done with this,” says Bowlsby.
Across the Big 12, most schools’ football teams are at least at a 75% vaccination level, Bowlsby told Sports Illustrated. As is the case in most if not all other conferences, the Big 12 is treating those unvaccinated differently from those who have had the shot. Unvaccinated players are still being tested regularly. That will continue through the season, Bowlsby says. Across the NCAA, players choosing not to get vaccinated will find themselves subject to contact tracing and quarantine rules, the biggest disrupters of 2020.
“Will there be a competitive disadvantage for those at 10% vaccination? Yes, there will,” says Doug Aukerman, a longtime sports physician and associate athletic director at Oregon State who chairs the Pac-12’s medical advisory board. “Players will get sick. Contact tracing will knock out people too.”
As a way to further incentivize vaccinations, some leagues have set an immunization threshold. For instance, schools in the SEC that reach an 85% vaccination mark are free from all mask-wearing inside facilities and are no longer required to test regularly. Coaches like Jedd Fisch of Arizona have called the vaccine a “competitive advantage,” and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey says vaccination brings college sports closer to a “return toward normal.”
Yet hurdles remain in convincing athletes to get the shot. Many are skeptical of the vaccine, which was produced in less than a year and received an emergency use authorization from the FDA. Some fear post-vaccine sickness and others are encouraged by unconvinced parents to skip vaccination.
West Virginia coach Neal Brown tells SI that 80% of his program is vaccinated, counting players and staff. At Iowa State, coach Matt Campbell says his team’s vaccination rate is encouraging but there is still hesitation, even with the incentive of no regular testing.
“That’s a big incentive and yet there is still a question of … why?” Campbell says. “We’re dealing with a society and that is how it’s going to be and that’s O.K., but you’ve got to be ready to educate them.”
The skepticism is rampant. One coach tells SI that a player told him he’s against vaccination because the shot “makes you sterile”—a claim unsupported by evidence. Another medical expert said some players believe the vaccine was part of a government effort to embed a tracking device in people.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the vaccine,” says Ackerman.
In many conferences and at the NCAA governance level, COVID-19 protocols for the upcoming season are still being examined. The Big 12 hasn’t decided yet whether the league will employ roster limits or whether it will deem a canceled game a no-contest or a forfeit. Last fall, as the virus ravaged many teams, a program could cancel a game if too many players were not available, resulting in a no-contest.
At the NCAA level, the Division I Football Oversight Committee is exploring such issues, says West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons, but the group is waiting to make firm decisions.
“Some teams, in order to play, are going to have to be fully vaccinated because the university requires it, and others won’t have very many vaccinated,” says Todd Berry, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, who sits on the Oversight Committee. “Maybe it needs to be a forfeiture. No-contest could allow for some gamesmanship.”
College sports got what Bowlsby described as a “wake-up call” in June, when a string of positive tests and subsequent contact tracing on the NC State baseball team knocked the Wolfpack out of the College World Series. They were one win away from qualifying for the championship series.
Bowlsby says the Texas baseball team, which competed in Omaha as well, was fully vaccinated.
“[NC State] is a really good example of how you can get off the rails if you’re not vigilant,” Bowlsby said. “You’re going to have to be self-disciplined.”
Meanwhile, a deadline lurches over college football programs just two weeks shy of the start of fall camp. The two-shot vaccine takes six weeks to be fully effective, says Jeff Dugas, Troy’s team doctor and an orthopedic surgeon in Birmingham who chairs the Sun Belt’s COVID-19 advisory panel.
That means if athletes were not vaccinated by mid-June, they will not be fully inoculated in time for fall camp.
“With the delta variant there are good reasons we need to continue to be vigilant,” says Bowlsby. “We wish we could be done with it, but we’re not.”
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