HOOVER, Ala. — As is tradition at the annual SEC Football Media Days, conference commissioner Greg Sankey opened the four-day event at the Wynfrey Hotel with an opening statement and Q&A with the media.
This year, Sankey didn't pull any punches, addressing a plethora of issues that rose in college athletics from ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to the recent Name, Image and Likeness policies that are currently at the forefront of present discussion.
Understandably, the pandemic and the SEC's ongoing handling of the key issues raised by it were a primary talking point of Sankey's opening statement. During his discussion, Sankey revealed that six of the conference's 14 football programs have reached the 80-percent vaccination threshold, meaning that those teams no longer have to be subjected to frequent testing and that mask mandates are no longer required.
Sankey didn't reveal which specific teams had reached the threshold. However, he hopes that the remaining eight teams will follow the example of the first six so that player safety can be ensured for the upcoming season.
"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," Sankey 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."
With just six weeks before the conference's first football game, Sankey stressed the importance of being vaccinated and emphasized that it is not a political issue. Rather, it is a health issue.
"With six weeks to go before kickoff, now is the time to seek that full vaccination," Sankey said. "And we know nothing is perfect, 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, and we need to do our part to support a healthy society because, as we look back, the potential absence of college sports last year caused us to think about not losing sight of the lifelong experiences, the laboratory of learning that takes place, and the educational benefits that accrue to the people who participate on our teams."
An issue from last season was the postponement or outright cancellation of games when teams experienced positive COVID-19 cases on their rosters, lowering the number of available players and jeopardizing the games due to minimum roster numbers issued by the conference.
On Monday, Sankey stated that he wishes to remove the roster number requirement for teams that exhibit positive cases. However, that would mean that teams would have to outright forfeit the competition rather than have the game postponed.
"So let's just indicate like the realities we deal with," Sankey said. "You hope not to have disruption, but hope is not a plan is the great cliche. We still have roster minimums that exist, just like last year. What I've identified for consideration among our membership is we remove those roster minimums and you're expected to play as scheduled. That means your team needs to be healthy to compete, and if not, that game won't be rescheduled."
The games being forfeited rather than rescheduled will likely result in teams attempting to reach the 80-percent vaccination rate to not only ensure player safety but also reduce the odds that a game on the schedule be cancelled.
"And thus, to dispose of the game, the "forfeit" word comes up at this point. That's not a policy, and what you see are the bookends now for decision-making. We've not built in the kind of time we did last year, particularly at the end of the season, to accommodate disruption. 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."
Moving on from the COVID-19 pandemic, another pressing issue that college football and college athletics is facing as a whole is that of NIL policies. With players in multiple states now being able to profit on their NIL but with no current legislation or wide-sweeping rules in place to limit it, the landscape of college athletics is quickly becoming a 'Wild West' of sorts regarding players being compensated with both local businesses and corporations.
Sankey addressed the issue and called for more widespread legislation. Not just from the NCAA, but at the federal level as well.
"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," Sankey 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. We need a federal solution."
Seeking legislation at the federal level will no doubt be a difficult task. However, with the issues of NIL surfacing mere weeks after becoming legal, there is a fast growth of loud voices at multiple levels ranging from coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioners that legislation be enacted to keep the landscape from growing out of control.
"We understand it's difficult to gather the support for such federal legislation," Sankey said. "However, congressional action is necessary if we're going to provide every student a clear, consistent, and fair opportunity to benefit from their name, image, and likeness."