Towers’ Take: Shouldn’t be playing this game in Columbia

Supplying refuge for thousands of citizens displaced by Hurricane Matthew such as this shelter in Jacksonville is all this weekend should have been about for the University of South Carolina and Columbia.

ATHENS — This is absurd. I don’t care that South Carolina moved the Georgia game to Sunday at 2:30 p.m. It still doesn’t make sense to me that they’re playing over there.

This isn’t about the weather for the game. Hurricane Matthew, a Category 4 storm, is supposed to reach the South Carolina coast sometime on Saturday. They’re calling only for a few inches of rain and windy conditions in Columbia around 7:30 p.m., the original time of the game. So, yes, it’s going to be nicer on Sunday — 77 degrees and sunny I’ve seen.

But that’s not the point. There are more than 3 million people from Florida, Georgia and South Carolina under a mandatory evacuation due to Hurricane Matthew right now. A quarter of a million of those people — at least — are fleeing the South Carolina coast under order of the state’s governor. And where are they headed? To Columbia. A whole lot of them anyway.

And I would suspect a whole lot of them will still be around on Sunday when Georgia and South Carolina are going to be playing in Williams-Brice Stadium. If they’re not there, they’re going to be on the roads in and around the state capitol. Those roads are already jam-packed, by the way.

But never mind traffic. It’s not like you just toodle back home the day after your region incurs record-setting storm surge due to a hurricane, which they’re predicting for the Carolina coast. Just ask those nice folks who are still dealing with Hurricane Sandy three years later about that. So I suspect there will be some lingering refugees, if you will.

But, no, they’re going to get this game in, by golly. And it’s going to be in Columbia. South Carolina made that point perfectly clear when they sent out a release Wednesday saying that they were not going to play this game anywhere else.

That was despite, by the way, some pretty weighty feedback from the state and the university as the situation developed. After ordering the evacuation of every resident living in South Carolina’s coastal regions this week, Gov. Nikki Haley stated flat out that she couldn’t see any way they could play the game in Williams-Brice Stadium. Upon hearing that they indeed were, she warned that they would have to do so without the support of state troopers. They’ll be otherwise occupied, she said.

Meanwhile, Harris Pastides, the University of South Carolina’s president, canceled classes Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. That’s another rather significant statement, don’t you think? To a lesser degree, so was moving the volleyball and equestrian matches they had scheduled against Georgia.

But football? No way, man. They’re still gonna play.

So let’s just cut to the heart of the matter. There are only two reasons they’re still going to conduct this game in Columbia this weekend despite the rather significant presence of Hurricane Matthew — money and a competitive edge.

According to The State newspaper in Columbia, a South Carolina home game against a major SEC opponent such as Georgia produces at least $7 million for the local economy, not to mention $4 million or so for the athletic association. Of course, there are insurance clauses in game contracts that address the potential financial consequences of canceling or postponing games due to weather. And the mighty SEC always stands close by as the a great and mighty provider.

No, if you ask me, the bigger issue here is South Carolina’s competitive edge. Let’s face it, the Gamecocks’ ability to win this game decreases dramatically if it is played anywhere else. South Carolina (2-3, 1-3 SEC) is fielding a competitive team this year, like it does pretty much every year. But the program is in a rebuilding mode in its first year under coach Will Muschamp, thanks to Steve Spurrier running out on them midway through last season.

As a result, Georgia is a significant favorite, even playing the Gamecocks on their home field. But South Carolina traditionally gives the Bulldogs fits at Williams-Brice. It has won the last three there, two of which it could be argued Georgia fielded the better overall team.

There was a very simple solution to this whole situation with respect to hurricanes and evacuees. Just move the game to Athens and play it in Sanford Stadium. That or take it down the road a little further to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Give them the Gamecocks the gate if you must, pay the game back next year, whatever it takes to make it as financially equitable as possible.

Just move it out of Columbia and let them use the stadium and the fairgrounds and all those facilities to care for the thousands of evacuees pouring into town.

But, no, Athletic Director Ray Tanner and the Gamecocks weren’t thinking about that. It seems their concerns were elsewhere.

South Carolina coach William Muschamp was asked about the decision Thursday night after announcing the time change on his radio call-in show.

“It’s all about the safety of our student-athletes,” he said of the 70 football players who will suit up for the Gamecocks on Sunday. “We’re very sensitive to a very catastrophic situation on our coast.”

Yeah, so sensitive that they’ll be playing ball two hours away. Now fire up the grill and break out the cold brew, tailgaters. Let’s play some football!

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