Will there be college football in the fall? SEC commissioner is hopeful

Sports have been on pause for the last two months. That has left many fans to wonder how the coronavirus pandemic will impact upcoming football seasons.

Like other conferences, all SEC athletic activities have been officially suspended until the end of May. But signs as of now point towards the SEC gearing up for football on July 1st.

Channel 2 sports director Zach Klein spoke exclusively 1-on-1 with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey this week. The commissioner is cautiously optimistic about college football and SEC starting on time.

Watch WSB-TV Sports Zone Sunday at 11:35 p.m. on Channel 2 for more of Klein’s conversation with Sankey, including new developments on players using their name, image and likeness.

Klein: What boxes are need to be checked off to start football on time?

Sankey: "I think part of the answer is we don’t know all of those boxes to be honest. What we’ve said right now is through the month of May, not involved in athletic activities on our campuses. Pretty quickly, we’ll have to get to what happens in June. Do we have the ability to open our weight rooms or not. That’s going to depend on state, local and campus guidance. And then as I look to the fall, Labor Day weekend, when we’re scheduled to start football, my focus is on being fully prepared for that weekend.

“From my perspective, we can probably go into mid-July with our decision making. I’ve been told repeatedly the longer you wait to make major decisions, the better information you will have to inform that decision-making. I’d love to be able to say right now here’s the direction. I can say we’re focused on being prepared to play football Labor Day week and that’s our goal."

Klein: How much room is there for you and the other Power 5 commissioners to make your own decisions and decide whether or not games are played?

Sankey: “One of the outcomes is we’re more connected now among the five conferences than I think we’ve ever been. We have spoken daily since probably March 10th or 11th when all of the change around basketball tournaments was happening. Our connection means we’d like to find solutions together. We have games early in the season scheduled with Pac 12 teams, with Big 12 teams, with ACC teams, with Notre Dame. All of us have those types of connections. Even goes into the FCS. Now what happens across this country remains to be seen. We’ve taken radical actions to try to be as healthy as we can. Our states have done the same. And we want that to position us to play.”

“The great thing is I don’t have to answer that question right now. We can look back during basketball season and we were having these daily calls. We made independent decisions that put us in the same destination. That’s a model that could play forward. Hypothetically could there be a program or some that are able to perform and others move ahead. Sure. But that’s certainly not a priority approach from my perspective.”

Klein: USA Today went through the financial reports of more than 50 Power 5 public schools. They said on average the cancellation of football could cost each of these schools nearly $80 million a piece. Are these schools equipped in your mind in the SEC to handle the loss of nearly 60 percent of their overall revenue?

Sankey: “There’s no place I’d rather be in this situation than in the Southeastern Conference. There’s an exclamation point on the end of that sentence. None of us sat down, whether it was my undergraduate program, my graduate program, I have lawyers in my office, they didn’t have it in their law school program and have a class on pandemic management. So, there are certainly adjustments that are happening now."

“We’ve reduced our operating budget by right around 15 percent for the current year. We’re looking at next year, our campuses are going to do that. What we don’t want to do is take away from our student athletes. While the focus has been on what’s the loss, we’ve done is to continue to support our student athletes.”

Klein: The University of Georgia is planning to be on campus in August. Do you see a situation in the SEC where one school could have a football practice or allowed to train, but other schools whose kids aren’t on campus cannot?

Sankey: “Our campuses are focused on getting back to operations, which is the first step for everyone. But we’ve stopped activity until June 1st. That question will first be answered with will there be access to weight rooms around the league. Will that vary from location to location? As we look to practices, I think that’s an even weightier question of the ability of everyone to move back to practice times together. Probably an adjusted summer practice because we lost the bulk of spring. Some of our programs lost all of their spring football.”

Klein: Do you see games being played with no fans, maybe 10,000 fans one week and 20,000 fans later on in the process in these 90,000 seat stadiums?

Sankey: “I’ve been very disciplined in my communication around those issues. I think to a certain extent people in April and May who try to predict exactly what the fall would look like need to go back to what I’ve observed and what has been shared to me by epidemiologists. Take your time. You’re going to have better information to make better decisions.

"We need to plan for contingencies and think through what those mean. From the attraction of fans in, there’s an economic standpoint. But first and foremost the health and safety component is at the top of our list.”

Klein: The job of commissioner of the SEC has so much pressure that goes along with it. Do you appreciate the opportunity now to lead this conference?

Sankey: “The grind is different. It may be more of a grind right now because we’re dealing, like in this interview, with hypothetical. There aren’t answers. That’s enormously frustrating for a person who wants to focus on solving problems."

“Believe it or not, I actually miss officiating complaints because that means we’re playing games. The fact we don’t have those contests. We’re in this really special part of our year in the spring. We have more going on than any other time. We have more championships. We’re in this graduation phase where young people realize this lifetime achievement of a college degree. We were going to have a great spring. I miss seeing those successes and the emotions that come with it.”