College football COVID-19 policies for the upcoming season raise questions and concerns

If you read my newspaper columns last summer and fall, you remember how my predictions for that college football season kept changing as news about the coronavirus changed. I went from thinking the season would go off normally with full stadiums to saying football would be cancelled due to fears of myocarditis from COVID-19 and everywhere in between. And heading into this summer, I expected football to return to normal. Then the delta variant came, and cases starting spiking. Now we enter a second season under the influence of the pandemic. How will schools, teams and conferences handle COVID-19 this season? I share my thoughts and questions in my latest newspaper column.

SEC teams will forfeit football games if they can’t play because of COVID-19.

On Monday, the Southeastern Conference announced its official policy regarding COVID-19 for the upcoming football season. Like the other major college football conferences, the SEC announced that any team which is unable to play in a regular season game due to COVID-19 will forfeit the game and will be assigned a loss in the conference standings. If neither team can play, both teams will forfeit and receive a loss. There will be no rescheduled games or missed games with no penalty.

The SEC could hold schools which can’t play financially responsible for the missed games and revenue.

The SEC did go one step further than other conferences, though. If one school whose team was able to play misses a game because another team must forfeit, it can submit a request for reimbursement subject to approval from the SEC Executive Committee. This statement puts into place the possibility of the school with the COVID-19 outbreak also being financially responsible for the other school’s lost gameday revenue, which could be millions of dollars.

The season hasn’t even started, but already there are far more questions than answers, especially with the delta variant causing a surge in COVID-19 cases across most of the country. Here are some thoughts and questions to ponder as we head into the first weekend of the college football season.

Will conferences treat all teams equally or make exceptions for the power teams?

First, does anyone honestly believe that the SEC won’t change its forfeiture rules regarding COVID-19 if it’s Alabama, Georgia or another top team that would miss the SEC Championship Game because of it? What if Alabama couldn’t play and stood to miss out on the playoff, potentially costing the league millions of dollars? I don’t see any way the rules wouldn’t be changed. Last fall, just days before the Big Ten Championship, the league eliminated its six-game requirement to play in the conference championship, allowing Ohio State to play and make the playoff. I worry the league will play tough with Vanderbilt and Arkansas but find a loophole for Florida or LSU. I hope I’m wrong.

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High vaccination rates among players has not translated to more people getting the vaccine.

Many football writers in the media have praised SEC teams for having most of their players vaccinated. They believe these athletes serve as role models and will convince students and fans to get the vaccine. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be happening. States of the 14 SEC schools have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. But the rising cases across the South could help with that problem. So far at least, it appears hesitant people are more likely to get vaccinated after someone in their family or a close friend gets infected.

It might be hard for many schools to require the vaccine – and masks – to attend games.

LSU became the first school in the conference to require anyone 12 years of age or older attending a game at Tiger Stadium to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within the last 72 hours. So far, the other 13 schools have not followed suit, and few across the country have gone that far. Both the SEC and NCAA decided to defer decisions regarding COVID-19 policies to the schools themselves based on local and state requirements. In the South, many governors and state legislatures have prevented such vaccine “passports.” Similarly, it might be tough for schools to mandate masks for fans in the stadiums in some of these states.

Also read:
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Teams might consider keeping their players out of class to decrease the risk of exposure.

Finally, should the coaches of these teams keep players from attending classes this fall? Only Vanderbilt required the vaccine for students, and only about one-quarter of colleges nationwide did. Keeping the players out of class would decrease their risk of exposure to the coronavirus by keeping them away from other students. But isn’t education the purpose of going to college and not football? Uh huh, sure. 

Clemson reportedly lost between $70 million and $135 million due to COVID-19 in the last fiscal year. A large portion of that shortfall came from reduced football ticket sales. Schools need these games played for financial reasons if nothing else. Coaches want to win. And let’s be honest. Die-hard fans would much rather see their teams on the field each week playing for a championship than have perfect class attendance rates among players. I won’t be surprised at all if players are essentially kept in a bubble, especially if the virus continues to spread as we progress through a second COVID-strained football season.

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the September 2, 2021 issue of The Post and Courier.