SEC commissioner Greg Sankey held a press conference on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena, looking to put the cancellation of the league tourney and suspension of spring sports into perspective.
The sports world has taken a hit with the outbreak of the coronavirus altering travel and events around the globe. Per NBC News, at the time of this writing (March 12), the United States has confirmed 1,412 coronavirus cases and there have been 39 deaths.
The SEC has fallen in line with other conferences and other sports leagues, canceling or modifying event attendance to mitigate the spread of the virus.
“I’ve not had a situation as difficult and emotional as this one to make a recommendation to our presidents and chancellors that we cancel the remainder of our men’s basketball tournament,” Sankey said. “It was a moment where I had to stop and actually catch myself and recompose myself.”
Sankey indicated competition will continue at the Indoor Track and Field National Championship in Albuquerque, N.M. Sankey seemed to allowed that decisions could be pending on currently scheduled championship events for swimming and diving, gymnastics and obviously the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
Those events, Sankey said, “Will be subject to NCAA authority from a participation standpoint and institutional decision-mains.”
Here’s the question and answer transcript from Sankey’s press conference, per league transcript:
Q. Commissioner, I’m sure this will be part of the review between now and March 30th, but some of the spring sport championships that are fixed date, fixed location championships, would there be any possibility of those dates pushing back at all, or will it just be a truncated season?
GREG SANKEY: Our gymnastics championships and equestrian championships will not happen. Those two are cancelled. Again, those are difficult decisions and were part of the decision here. We have a March 30th date. The remainder of spring sports championships are after that date. So when we go to golf, tennis, which are the next sets of sports that are up, we’ll have an opportunity to evaluate and answer that question later, the same for baseball, outdoor track — excuse me. Softball, outdoor track, and baseball in that sequence.
I had a question about Destin already too. I haven’t altered that plan right now.
Q. Greg, you said there was stark information that you were given by the NCAA. Can you expound on that? Was that just medical information? What exactly was that information?
GREG SANKEY: I don’t have all of that detail, Adam. We have a representative on the NCAA board of Governors, Dr. Eli Capilouto. They had a call that was called suddenly yesterday afternoon, as I understand, and in my debrief with him, just the overview of that information, what was being shared, there are six medical doctors on the COVID-19 advisory panel. There’s another individual who works in international events, security and management, and a set of former and current student-athletes. They shared information. I don’t have all of those details, but it was about spread, about the need to interrupt the potential spread, and the role of college athletics and big events in engaging in stopping that potential spread.
Q. Greg, have you given any thought to extending eligibility for seniors who have been affected by this, whether it’s winter sports or spring sports or whatever?
GREG SANKEY: Not at this point. That would be one of those issues on a long list of additional items to consider, and I don’t think we have to come to that conclusion right now.
Q. Greg, I know that a lot’s been going on, but what kind of discussions have you had with your football coaches about their spring practices? What discussions have happened there?
GREG SANKEY: I was on a conference call with one of our athletic departments where that was asked. Our athletic director talked about that afterwards. We’ve limited the size clearly of on campus events, and campuses are doing that individually, but I don’t have a prescriptive list right now around what’s going to happen with spring practice, spring football.
Q. Greg, you sort of already answered this, but how much was it a factor of a player possibly infecting another player here in the tournament?
GREG SANKEY: That had been on our mind for a number of days and weeks. We felt with what we knew at that time that we could still move forward. When you’re about to walk up here, you look at your phone, and you have a text message, and then you see a story with an NBA coach, Billy, who we all know from his work here, and the decision in that story that the NBA has suspended play after a test. Are you going to be proactive or reactive? We felt right now, given what’s happening, we needed to be proactive at this point.
Q. Commissioner, the SEC Baseball Tournament is going to be in a couple of months. Any changes or updates to mention about that?
GREG SANKEY: We don’t have any changes right now. That March 30th date gives us an opportunity to take a step back from a rather intense 24, 36 hours and consider the direction with the remainder of the spring as scheduled or any adjustments. Right now that March 30 date has the most importance, I think, as a milestone.
Q. Is there going to be a later date?
GREG SANKEY: We’ll see.
Q. Pending whatever decision the NCAA makes about its tournament, would you allow your schools to go to the tournament in light of the information that you have?
GREG SANKEY: Part of what we’ve discussed is that subject to NCAA authority and institutional decision-making, if the NCAA continues with events, our teams will be able to participate in those championships. Knowing that the NCAA is digging deeply into these issues, should those events continue, we think that’s the appropriate approach. Very different than on campus or neutral site or traveling under regular season competition.
But I think that our national office has some work to do on each of those elements.
Q. Greg, did you get a sense this morning that coaches, players, those who are in Nashville maybe didn’t want to play even with playing for the automatic bid and that sort of thing?
GREG SANKEY: Not that directly. I was here on Tuesday evening before a dinner I needed to attend to see the teams practicing, and it was Ole Miss with Kermit and Tom and his team with Georgia. I asked both coaches, are your teams focused and ready to play? Absolutely was the answer. I took that as what we’d expect.
Yesterday I think people were focused. I had a question a week ago from a coach about should we do this, but not necessarily predicting this outcome.
If you’ll allow me a moment, I’m going to tell you a story about 2008 that is one of my favorite images.
We had a tornado hit the Georgia Dome. Many of you were there and can probably recall where you were sitting. None of us slept the night. Mark Womack was leading. Mike Slive was on the basketball committee. So he was sequestered in Indianapolis at that time. I was doing what I did at that point. We moved to Georgia Tech. We had a doubleheader for one team. Georgia-Kentucky played. Georgia won. Georgia won again, and then Georgia won the Championship.
There was a student-athlete on that team walking down the hallway carrying our championship trophy saying, this is the best day of my life. I have felt the responsibility to give that team another opportunity, but the greater responsibility is the health and the information that’s come about. That’s to say this is important, and I think our teams are focused on accessing that opportunity.
In talking quickly now with our coaches, what I’ve heard is those guys look at the NBA. When that happens at the NBA level, they’re saying you want me to post up and guard closely and do these sorts of things. So I think that that thought, that kind of question in their minds was developing. That’s my sense from some of the coaches with whom I’ve spoken, and I’ve not even talked to half. That’s now been there in a different way.
Thank you for indulging me with my story, but you do a lot of work. A lot of it’s never seen. A lot of it’s questioned. We have staff over there who are filled with questions like you, and those types of moments are motivation.
Q. Speaking of being proactive rather than reactive, there’s a lot of momentum with events being cancelled, and I wonder what sense you have about the NCAA Tournament, whether it’s going to be played?
GREG SANKEY: They have a tough road ahead in decision-making. I think any of you can judge reactively or proactively. We played last night, and then we reacted. You make the best decisions possible with the best available information. The NCAA leadership is going to have to make that. I won’t judge right now what the outcome may be. There’s a pause. They’ve got some time, candidly, that I did not have today, and I would encourage them to use time to fully evaluate, be thoughtful, and determine whether or not we might be able to go forward with any of the NCAA Championships in this relatively short window.
So you have wrestling, Missouri has the sport of wrestling. I haven’t checked the qualifiers. I mentioned indoor track and field, obviously basketball. That’s why we’re here, both men’s and women’s. Gymnastics. I hurt for all those student-athletes. It just means more. You saw a little bit of that emotion, but I know the pride that exists in this conference for having the access to National Championships is meaningful to young people.
Q. Greg, you mentioned there’s no prescriptive list for football, but would you as an office recommend coaches be pulled back, or would there be any sort of discussion about recruiting, avoiding just being out on the road right now?
GREG SANKEY: I’ll go larger. There’s no list for any of this. I have an undergraduate degree, a Masters degree from Syracuse. This was never in one of my Masters classes. We have a few law degrees in their offices. I checked with each of them. No, they never had this one in our law school classes. So that’s reality. We’re learning. We’re making the best decisions on the best available information.
We did have conversations about recruiting I referenced and have stopped off campus and on campus recruiting for a period of time. That could be extended. I’ve identified the NCAA needs to fully engage on this issue as well. The practice issue may be for them nationally. I think we had some conversations. I don’t know that we came to a destination, so that means it’s still on that list that we’re creating.
Q. Greg, we saw last night with the decision to keep fans out and then this morning with cancellations around the country, it’s kind of a chain reaction from conference to conference. How much were the decisions here at the SEC done in consultation with other commissioners like yourself from other leagues and the NCAA?
GREG SANKEY: I’ll give just a commendation to my colleagues in what are called the autonomy conferences, to Larry, to Bob — Kevin’s brand new. He walked into this. Jim lives down the street. He picked the perfect time to retire, it appears, for this one, and to John as well. We do talk. We obviously have common issues to talk about on a regular basis, but our communication has accelerated.
We’ve all made independent decisions, but as I talk about best available decision based on best available information, that collaboration helps provide better and best available information. We all had to go back to our own boards and act independently. We did that. We could have made a different decision, but I think somebody asked me the timing last night. We knew at 5:45 Central that they were going to adjust our attendance for the following day, and today I think we had a call at 10:30 this morning knowing that we had a noon tip-off and we needed to move quickly to make this decision today.
That was our independent decision, but the ability to collaborate is the kind of work that leaders should do at this level.
Thank you everyone. Appreciate your interest and your coverage. I know you have a job to do, and you’ve got some space to fill that you didn’t expect to have to fill in different ways the next couple of days. So thank you for your work.