ATHENS — Greg Sankey is the arguably the most informed and well-sourced figure in college football, and that’s why he makes it a point to share just how fluid things are where the coronavirus pandemic is concerned.
“I’ve used the metaphor that we are literally building the bridge as we cross the river,” Sankey said on the SEC Network this week. “And we’re writing the operations manual as we do so.”
Sankey, now in his fifth year as the SEC commissioner, points out sports leadership must take a backseat to medical and scientific authority where the resumption of group activity is concerned.
“We will not determine the timeline, the virus will determine the timeline,” Sankey said, quoting Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute on Allergies and Infectious Diseases.
“We’re going to rely exactly on our public health officials, at the national levels, state levels, and around our campuses and communities, to guide us toward a return to what we have known as normal.”
In the meantime, Sankey is working to find solutions for a wide range of logistical challenges and applications of rules once the action resumes. Several scenarios have been discussed, weighed and contemplated, even as the circumstances change amid the crisis’ evolution.
“Every week we talk there’s something new that emerges that helps guide our decision making,” Sankey said, accepting of the moving target he’s dealing with. “So the inability to answer right now, I think, is reality. We want to be intentional and careful, and yet we know those answers will emerge.”
Here are three takeaways from Sankey’s SEC Network interview on The Paul Finebaum Show on Wednesday:
Labor Day Goal
Sankey didn’t give a definitive answer when asked if college football could resume without other students on college campus. But in clarifying his mission statement as the SEC commissioner, he essentially showed his hand.
“I’ve been careful to say my focus is on preparing to kickoff the season come Labor Day weekend,” Sankey said. “I can’t guarantee that, and no one can guarantee that. Yet I’m going to fulfill that responsibility, and I think that’s important for a few reasons.
“One, there’s a long time to go before certain decisions have to be made.”
Indeed, and as Sankey alluded, things change daily.
“I turn to our student athletes pretty quickly, and we want to make decisions that are right by them, but I think part of what’s important is to communicate (that) their foundation, their attachment to this athletics experience, and to universities, is still there.”
The Autonomy Five
Sankey has held daily conference calls with SEC athletic directors and weekly calls with league presidents and chancellors. Beyond that, Sankey indicated he’s “had more active conversations with the NCAA national office, across all of the Division I conferences” than ever before.
But the most generative calls are likely those Sankey has daily with what he referred to as “the autonomy five commissioners.”
“That’s my colleagues from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12,” Sankey said, referring to what’s commonly known as the Power 5. “And I think when we (first) visited, it seems like a decade ago, back on March 12, I referenced positive working relationships there, and as issues develop, you can imagine that’s part of our morning dialogue each day.”
Indeed, the Power 5 schools carry major clout, to the extent some speculate the potential exists for those leagues to split from the rest of the FBS ranks and out from under NCAA control.
Sankey’s reference to the “autonomy five” serves as a reminder of the 2014 NCAA Division I board of directors vote enable the power five conferences the autonomy to write many of their own rules.
Sankey said there’s no self-imposed deadline to reach a decision on when action can resume, or when it would need to resume. But a process to find the answers to those questions is underway.
“Using our football coaches’ knowledge, we’re actually putting together a group,” Sankey said. “Our last two presidents’ and chancellors’ calls, we’ve asked for a combination of sports medicine focus leaders from our campuses — those who work in the epidemiology disease area, and orthopedic, really, our athletic trainers.
“So we’ll take the input from our coaching leaders and …. the science around the virus that’s being treated across this country, and that’s guided how we’re living, (and) when can we return,” Sankey said. “And when we understand more about those decision-making benchmarks, how do they inform our preparation?”
Sankey said he’s heard conjecture that it could be six to 10 weeks, but he’s not willing to speculate.
“I look at it as a range without absolutes,” Sankey said. “Because there’s so much at the moment that’s not absolute, and it would be wrong of us to say ‘here’s the hard and fast of when it has to happen.’ “
Sankey believes the timing, like the solutions, will work itself out.
Until then, Sankey continues to provide direction and stability for the SEC, helping collegiate athletics along the comeback trail one step at a time.
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