What's next move for college leaders?

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Thursday, August 13, 2020
Greg Sankey, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, talks about the decision to cancel the remaining games in the SEC NCAA college basketball tournament Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. The conference tournament was cancelled due to coronavirus concerns. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Greg Sankey, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, talks about the decision to cancel the remaining games in the SEC NCAA college basketball tournament Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. The conference tournament was cancelled due to coronavirus concerns. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Now what?

The lines were drawn in the sand among the Power 5 conferences on Tuesday and Wednesday, with plenty of heated rhetoric thrown about by the commentariat, and now comes the short lull.

The University of Arkansas and its 13 fellow members of the Southeastern Conference remain on course to open actual football practices Monday, 40 days out from what would be season-opening games on Sept. 26.

The Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 12 are also on track to start playing football, possibly as early as Sept. 12, with covid-19 concerns still alive and doing a cracking good job of dividing the nation down all kinds of fault lines.

The Big Ten and, in short order, the Pac-12 both decided on Tuesday to pull the plug on fall seasons in all sports, but most notably football. The decision by the Big Ten, and the well-publicized lead-up to the announcement, exposed in-fighting in the conference, with coaches and others from Ohio State, Michigan and most notably Nebraska, expressing their discontent with the idea of putting a halt to football. The talk immediately shifted to trying to play a spring season.

Officials in both conferences pointed to the threat of myocarditis, a rare condition that causes an inflammation of the heart that has been linked to covid-19 cases, as a key factor in their decisions.

An ESPN report on Monday cited two anonymous sources saying myocarditis has been found in at least five Big Ten Conference athletes and "several other athletes in other conferences."

In a Pac-12 webinar held Tuesday, the phrase "responsibility over liability" was emphasized.

Arizona State Athletic Director Ray Anderson, speaking on the webinar, said: "Our responsibilities are not about liabilities. We're not driven by lawyers who say 'we'll relieve you of liability.' We have our responsibilities to protect these student-athletes."

Florida quarterback Kyle Trask, posting on Wednesday his support for the #WeWantToPlay social media movement, asked that the NCAA and athletic departments across the country consider extending medical support to athletes "for a period of time" after their departure from school.

The Big 12 decision to move forward for now, some believe, prevented a chain reaction that would have eventually led the SEC and ACC to push pause as well.

Keep in mind, the three Power 5 conferences who have not given up on fall football intend to continually monitor coronavirus trends and listen to reports from their medical advisory team before starting a season.

The Big 12 released its league schedule on Wednesday, which starts with games on Sept. 26. However, league members can also play a nonconference game on either Sept. 12 or 19, in addition to the nine-game conference schedule.

The ACC is scheduled to start playing Sept. 12, and the SEC has announced Sept. 26 as its opening day.

The ACC released this statement on Tuesday: "The ACC will continue to make decisions based on medical advice, inclusive of our Medical Advisory Group, local and state health guidelines, and do so in a way that appropriately coincides with our universities' academic missions.

"The safety of our students, staff and overall campus communities will always be our top priority, and we are pleased with the protocols being administered on our 15 campuses. We will continue to follow our process that has been in place for months and has served us well.

"We understand the need to stay flexible and be prepared to adjust as medical information and the landscape evolves."

Notre Dame, participating as one of the 15 ACC teams this season, which lost a home game with Arkansas that had been scheduled for Sept. 12, released some striking information on Monday.

The school announced that it had conducted nearly 12,000 covid-19 tests of incoming students before the start of classes on Monday and less than one-third of 1 percent had tested positive. The exact numbers were 33 positive results among students out of 11,836 tests administered.

Officials around the SEC, including Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek, have argued that weekly coronavirus testing and heightened scrutiny of sanitary practices has created de-facto team bubbles that players have worked hard to protect because they value the ability to play football this season.

"They are in a much healthier situation working out in our facilities with medical care, with health protocols around COVID in this environment compared to going to lift weights at your local gym," SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said on the Dan Patrick Show a few hours before the Big Ten and the Pac-12 halted fall sports.

"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 a healthy return to competition."

Yurachek, who posted on Monday his take on the player-led #WeWantToPlay movement that has swelled in recent days, continued to tout Sankey's measured approach to a potential fall season.

"Greg Sankey does an incredible job leading us, and part of his leadership during the past several months is for us to be patient and take time in making decisions," Yurachek said on the SEC Network on Monday.

"There are some really impactful decisions we're having to make, and there's no reason to rush into making those decisions."

Former Arkansas Coach Lou Holtz, who guided Notre Dame to the 1988 national championship, took Big Ten leadership to task on Tuesday after the conference's announcement.

"Players want to play, coaches want to coach, athletic directors want to play," Holtz said on Fox News. "The presidents have their responsibilities, and they have no other concerns. It's easy to say 'No, we aren't going to play.' That is lack of leadership. You have to look at the whole process.

"For example, Clemson, many months ago had a rash of covid-19 positives. They've had one in the last month."

Holtz said Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, an outspoken advocate of playing the season, made a very smart point when he said players were more likely to catch the virus if they didn't play football this fall.

"As other people have said, they learned more in the locker room than they ever did in the classroom," Holtz said. "You need athletics. You need association with people. You need this. You've worked all your life for it. You want to be able to play.

"At some time, we've got to move on with this country. We just can't sit all locked up. ... Sometimes the cure is far worse than the illness. I said that with my wife. I think that's the case here."

Holtz's wife, Beth, died on July 1 at age 83 after a long-running battle with cancer that reportedly featured 83 radiation treatments.

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