College football’s most powerful conference, the SEC, announced Thursday it plans to forge ahead with a season this fall. But a day earlier, in a private meeting with conference leaders and medical advisers, several football players raised concerns about their safety, only to be told that positive cases on their teams were a “given,” according to an audio recording obtained by The Washington Post.
The meeting, which took place Wednesday, included more than a dozen SEC football players, members of the conference’s medical advisory board and SEC officials, including Commissioner Greg Sankey. It was designed as a “confidential free exchange,” an SEC spokesman said in an email, where the league’s medical advisers could “hear questions and our student-athletes were able to hear answers.”
But the recording offers a window into how conference officials – keen on keeping a multibillion dollar industry afloat amid the novel coronavirus pandemic – are, and aren’t, reassuring the athletes they need to make the season a reality.
“There are going to be outbreaks,” one official told players on the call. (The official didn’t identify himself, and the SEC spokesman declined to identify him to The Post.) “We’re going to have positive cases on every single team in the SEC. That’s a given, and we can’t prevent it.”
As the 2020 season barrels closer, several high-profile programs have grappled with outbreaks. Some have had to temporarily suspend workouts, including Michigan State and Rutgers, which are both in isolation after several players tested positive.
Players in the SEC and other conferences have the option to opt out of this season and retain their scholarships. But just a handful of players at top schools have done so, preferring to skip the season and preserve a year of NCAA eligibility rather than risk infection.
Caleb Farley, an NFL-bound cornerback from Virginia Tech, said this week that he lost his mother to breast cancer and couldn’t stomach the idea of losing another family member. Ra’Von Bonner, a reserve running back at the University of Illinois, told The Post the risks of playing outweighed the reward.
Players on the SEC call, who were part of a “student-athlete leadership council,” raised similar concerns, with one player asking: “For so much unknown in the air right now, is it worth having a football season without certainty?”
Sankey, who earned a $2.5 million salary in 2018, responded: “Part of our work is to bring as much certainty in the midst of this really strange time as we can so you can play football in the most healthy way possible, with the understanding there aren’t any guarantees in life.”
The players were especially concerned with what happens once their universities reopen. When they returned for workouts this summer, their campuses were largely empty. Most of the people they interacted with were those inside their cloistered and regimented football programs, where regular testing and the potential ire of their powerful coaches made adherence to public health guidelines a must for many athletes.
MoMo Sanogo, a linebacker at the University of Mississippi, asked the officials on the call why his school planned to bring thousands of students to campus for fall classes. Sanogo said he has four classes per week, and he fears some of those classmates will go to bars and parties at night, then unknowingly infect football players during class.
The answer Sanogo received shed light on the pressure that university presidents, who rely on college football for prestige and revenue, face to reopen their campuses this fall, even as the pandemic surges. “It’s one of those things where if students don’t come back to campus, then the chances of having a football season are almost zero,” an official who did not identify himself said.
The official told Sanogo that class sizes would be smaller so students can sit 6 feet apart from one another, and that face coverings should help keep students safe. But he admitted the arrangement was “not fair” to athletes, who might take every precaution but still be infected by the students who don’t.
He suggested Sanogo, 21, remind the people around him to behave responsibly. “As un-fun as it sounds,” the official said, “the best thing that you can do is just try to encourage others to act more responsibly and not put yourself in those kinds of situations. I’m very comfortable with what we’ve done on campus. I’m concerned about what happens from 5 p.m. until 5 a.m.”
Sanogo kept pushing. “How can y’all help us?” he asked. He referenced the concept of a “bubble,” the insular playing environments employed by pro basketball and ice hockey, and compared it with his bustling college campus. Another member of the task force told him that his mask would offer protection, and he could be a role model for others to wear one. She told him to sit at the back of classrooms and not engage in close conversations.
The officials’ uncertainty was not lost on Keeath Magee II, a Texas A&M linebacker, who wondered aloud whether starting the season with so many unanswered questions would be something the officials would come to regret.
“You guys have answered a lot of questions the best way that you guys could, and we really appreciate it. But as much as you guys don’t know … it’s just kind of not good enough,” he said. “We want to play. We want to see football. We want to return to normal as much as possible. But it’s just that with all this uncertainty, all this stuff that’s still circulating in the air, y’all know it kind of leaves some of us still scratching my head. … I feel like the college campus is the one thing that you can’t control.”
Sankey highlighted how much decision-makers in sports have learned in the past four months, and how they will continue to adapt. He said the SEC and member schools are committed to creating the “best environment possible in this new reality.”
Another athlete, who did not identify himself, sought more information about the effects of the virus itself: “What information do you have about the lasting effects on players who may contract COVID?”
The moderator promptly directed the question to Shawn Gibbs, dean of Texas A&M’s School of Public Health. Gibbs promptly punted. “Remember,” he said. “I’m an industrial hygienist, so I’m not the medical person here.”
Marshall Crowther, a sports medicine physician at the University of Mississippi, stepped in. “The problem is a lot of this we don’t know,” Crowther said. Most people, he said, seem to not have lasting effects. He acknowledged the growing concerns among medical experts about how the virus affects people’s hearts but said there has not been enough time to conduct long-term studies.
Catherine O’Neal, a professor of medicine who specializes in infectious diseases, chimed in then, describing how young medical residents at her hospital who have contracted the virus have complained of being exhausted for four to six weeks. If that happened to college football players, she pointed out, it could affect their performance.
“Even though we’re saying you’re great because you’re not hospitalized,” O’Neal said, “it’s going to take something out of you.”
O’Neal did not return a request for comment Friday.
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