Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
SEC set to allow June 8 openings
Joe Steinmetz (left), chancellor of the University of Arkansas, speaks Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017, alongside Hunter Yurachek after Yurachek was introduced as the new director of athletics at the University of Arkansas during a news conference in the Fowler Family Baseball and Track Indoor Training Center in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Members of the SEC agreed on a June 8 reopening of training facilities for a segment of athletes Friday, an early milestone in the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic that could lead to an on-time start to college football and other sports this fall.
SEC chancellors and presidents met via video conference late Friday morning after consulting with health professionals in states across the conference on Thursday and came to an agreement on the date of Monday, June 8, as part of a phasing-in process toward larger team workouts.
The SEC has relied on its Return to Activity and Medical Guidance Task Force for suggestions to minimize the risk of introducing or spreading the coronavirus on college campuses. As part of its recommendations, the task force has composed a list of best practices in addition to screening, testing, monitoring, tracing, social distancing and maintaining cleaned environments:
• Enhanced education of all team members on health and wellness best practices, including but not limited to preventing the spread of covid-19
• A three-stage screening process that involves screening before student-athletes arrive on campus within 72 hours of entering athletic facilities and on a daily basis upon resumption of athletic activities
• Testing of symptomatic team members (including all student-athletes, coaches, team support and other appropriate individuals)
• Immediate isolation of team members who are under investigation or diagnosed with covid-19 followed by contact tracing, following CDC and local public health guidelines
• A transition period that allows student-athletes to gradually adapt to full training and sport activity following a period of inactivity
At that time, voluntary workouts can resume under "strict supervision" on SEC campuses at the discretion of each university, the SEC announced.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement Friday, "At this time we are preparing to begin the fall sports season as currently scheduled, and this limited resumption of voluntary athletic activities on June 8 is an important initial step in that process."
University of Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek had said the Razorbacks' athletic department had a plan in place to welcome athletes as early as June 1, a time frame for which first-year football Coach Sam Pittman was supportive. Arkansas intends to bring back previously enrolled athletes in football, men's and women's basketball, soccer, volleyball and cross country June 8. A plan to allow freshmen to report to campus on July 1 is also in the works.
The SEC had imposed a suspension of all athletic activities on member campuses through May 31 to help reduce the possible spread of the coronavirus.
"As we continue to plan for the possibility of returning to in-person teaching and learning in August, I've also been engaged in discussions with other chancellors and presidents from the SEC and other conferences as well as Hunter and other athletic directors regarding the needed safety precautions that must be in place to allow the voluntary return of student-athletes to campus," UA Chancellor Joe Steinmetz said in a statement for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "Hunter and I are in complete agreement. I believe the proper safety guidelines are in place and I support the SEC's decision. As far as the fall academic semester is concerned, I plan to make an announcement about that around June 1."
The UA has a framework of guidelines in place to mitigate the risk of exposing athletes to the virus. The guidelines were developed through discussions with the Arkansas Department of Health, the UA's environmental health department and doctors at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Yurachek told the UA board of trustees Wednesday.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, Yurachek thanked Sankey, the 13 other SEC schools and the league's Return to Activity and Medical Guidance Task Force.
"As we resume on-campus activities, the continued health and well-being of our student-athletes will remain our top priority," Yurachek said. "I sincerely appreciate the efforts of our Department of Athletics staff and numerous medical professionals across our state, who worked collaboratively to develop a detailed plan in accordance with University, SEC, NCAA and Arkansas Department of Health directives. We are well-prepared and look forward to confidently welcoming back many of our student-athletes in the coming weeks."
Pittman, during the UA's One Razorback Road Show segment aired Thursday night, said the athletic department and football staff have stayed diligently at work planning for a return to activity.
"I'm thankful for all the people that have spent a lot of time and effort in making these decisions this week," Pittman said in a statement Friday. "The most important part in all of this is the health and well-being of our student-athletes. We are confident in our plan to bring our guys back to campus where our resources are here to help them academically, emotionally and physically. For us as a new staff, we can't wait to see them and continue to build our trust with one another."
Athletes at Arkansas are expected to undergo health and wellness testing and physicals prior to the June 8 start date. Workouts are expected to be limited to smaller groups with social-distancing practices in place and rigorous cleaning between the training sessions.
"This is an exciting step in our hopes to play sports in the fall," Arkansas men's basketball Coach Eric Musselman said in a statement. "I think it will be great for our student-athletes to be back on campus and have the many services our support staff can give them in terms of academics, medical needs, physical conditioning and mental wellness."
Arkansas women's basketball Coach Mike Neighbors said there is a saying in his program that if you stay ready, you never have to get ready, and he plans for that to apply to the resumption of supervised voluntary activities.
"Since day one, I've used Governor [Asa] Hutchinson, Commissioner Sankey, Chancellor Steinmetz and Hunter Yurachek as my Mount Rushmore of information on how to proceed through these challenging times," Neighbors said. "They have kept us well-informed and have built confidence in us all that there is a great plan in place. So if they say we're ready, we are ready."
Sports on 05/23/2020
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