Greg Sankey

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey at 2018 Media Days.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – On any given list of the most powerful and influential people in college sports, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference ranks right near the top, and usually No. 1. As a result, current SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is hardly a voice in the wilderness.

Yet that’s how it felt as he gave it the old college try when it came to the subject of COVID and the coming football season.

Nothing, it seems, can motivate SEC country to embrace the COVID vaccine. This week’s SEC Media Days are being held in Hoover, Ala., in the state that ranks dead last in population that has been vaccinated. (As a result, the SEC had to close its media event to fans, limit media attendance, restrict press conference capacity and enact other COVID restrictions.)

A look at the SEC states shows a dismal record of vaccine success, and the predictable uptick in cases over the past month. In Alabama, cases are up 133 percent over the past two weeks, and hospitalizations up 39 percent.

Of the eight states with the lowest percentage of population vaccinated, six are SEC states (Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia and Tennessee). South Carolina and Missouri and Texas aren’t much better. Those nine states all rank in the bottom 14. Florida, at No. 25 with 47.7 percent of its population vaccinated, leads the way in the SEC. Kentucky, at 44.8, is next, ranking No. 30 overall.

So when it comes to COVID, perhaps Sankey is a voice in the wilderness. But he has a big megaphone, and on Monday he tried to use it.

“Let me be clear to our fans, to our coaches, to our staff members, and to our student-athletes,” he said. “COVID-19 vaccines are widely available. 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 six weeks to go before kickoff, now is the time to seek that full vaccination. 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.”

Now, Sankey knows, we are not, as a society, where we were a year ago. There will be college football in the fall, and there will be fans in stadiums. The presence of the vaccine assures us of that. We are not at Square One where COVID is concerned.

He did not make his comments to incite panic or overreaction, and I'm not writing about them to incite panic or overreaction.

And yet, in much of the Southeastern U.S., we’re a lot closer to it than elsewhere. CDC officials have spoken of a regionalized pandemic, with outbreaks in low-vaccine areas where the Delta variant of COVID-19 will be given opportunity to flourish because of an unvaccinated population.

And while Sankey can’t tell people that COVID will threaten college football this season, he can remind them that it could threaten the on-field viability of their teams. And he did.

“Your team needs to be healthy to compete,” Sankey said. “And if not, that game won't be rescheduled. 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.”

We’ll see if his motivation is heeded. Sankey said only six of the SEC’s 14 teams have reached the 80% vaccination threshold the conference is shooting for.

That means that players aren’t embracing the idea of vaccines, and perhaps that coaches aren’t. With the rules the way they are, with what happened to North Carolina State’s baseball team in Omaha, with Olympians facing COVID fears in Japan, it’s hard to believe that athletes would pass on a shot that has not been demonstrated to harm athletic performance.

The vaccine is no guarantee, of course. But Sankey is right to use his pulpit to promote it. In a region of the country that values its college football above much else, it is an opportunity for leadership from the conference – and from its football coaches.

Sure, this is a life and death issue. But to some, apparently, it’s all fun and games until someone loses a football game.

The hope is that through vaccines, football games will be the worst losses people face this fall.

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