SEC Commissioner offers glimmer of hope for return of college athletics

As Arkansas takes steps toward opening businesses back up, I can’t help but think that it is good news for sports fans and in particular Razorback fans.

I apologize if thinking about sports and the economy seems shallow during a time when our state and particularly our nation is seeing so many die from the novel coronavirus, but observing and considering sports — Razorback sports in particular — is what is done with this space.

The death toll has reached 61 in the state which is awful but small when compared to the 60,000 who have died throughout the United States in about two months. Because the numbers of deaths reported by some other nations are suspect and problematic, it’s difficult to find an accurate worldwide number, but it’s staggering however you look at it.

It’s numbing.

I offer up prayers for those who are suffering and for those healthcare professionals and others — such as meatpackers, truckers, grocery stockers — that face this situation in a far more personal way than me. I’m thankful for their courage, endurance, and heart as well as their skill and knowledge that has allowed our lifestyle to continue even with the changes we continue to endure. Still I know I really don’t fully understand the magnitude of the crisis that only seems to grow day by day as I’m sequestered at home, except for weekly Wal-Mart trips.

So I choose to be optimistic about the steps local businesses are making toward normalcy. These early steps have to be made before we can move any faster. Hopefully, any rebound with the virus will be small and concentrated as our state moves forward.

As we sift through the little bits of news about sports, I think some positives came to light in the last few days as the the MLB and NBA begin to discuss a possible return. While my interest is primarily college athletics, the professional ranks will lead the way in sports return, and any news of moving forward is good news.

The idea that the NBA could sequester itself at Disney World with teams camping at the various hotels in the Orlando area and playing their games without fans in the HP Field House (formerly the Milk House) at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex adjacent to the Disney compound is intriguing. I covered the Razorbacks’ 2006 appearances at the Milk House. It’s smallish, but certainly sufficient for NBA games without fans.

The various Disney amusements parks aren’t expected to reopen until sometime in 2021 with reduced capacity.

Any movement toward playing professional sports will only make the return of the Razorbacks happen more quickly.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey let fans in on a bit of his thinking about the return of college football and other sports this fall during a radio appearance on 1010 XL of Jacksonville, Fla.

While Sankey said he hopes college football will be able to move forward and begin play this fall in unison, that doesn’t necessary have to be the case. reported that Sankey said, “There is room for different conferences to make different decisions.”

The article also reported that Sankey added, “If there’s a couple of programs that aren’t able, does that stop everyone? I’m not sure it does. But the ability for us to stay connected will remain important.”

That’s significant and good information for SEC fans. States around the South, like Arkansas next week, are moving into Phase 1 of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for reopening.

If we get to the point where students are attending classes and living on campus at most SEC schools this fall, it looks like we can expect some kind of SEC football season.

As many have said, it’s vital for college athletics for there to be some kind of college football season in the coming months. Football is like the leader of the family for a college sports program. If football doesn’t put the groceries on the table, the rest of the family goes hungry.

Certainly a college football season without all the major teams or conferences would not be ideal or nearly as interesting as what we are used to, but if the SEC is ready, willing, and capable of playing this fall, it’s good to know that the SEC Commissioner isn’t going to let other programs or conferences hold them back.

Sankey, of course, didn’t say he had all the answers. In fact he added that finding all the answers will be complicated.

“The NCAA has a role because we govern practice time and practice dates nationally. Because we missed spring football, because we altered spring conditioning, those have to change,” Sankey said. “Those start to inform the answer about, ‘What if one does this and one can do that? Or 10 can do that but one cannot?’ Those will be the harder elements.

“Our hope is that people continue to pursue the healthy course — or taking what I would consider to be radical measures now so that we can get through this, learn treatments, figure out how to manage ourselves socially and then get back to some type of normal function sooner rather than later.

“Hope is not a plan, but right now the desire would be to have 11 states and 14 institutions moving forward in a collective manner and, like I said, connected nationally so that we can celebrate the return of college sports.”

Obviously what happens in the next two months as states make moves toward further opening of the economy is going to tell the tale. If there is a strong rebound with more and more people continuing to contract the virus, everything might have to be slowed down, including the return of college athletics.

However, if states are able to move successfully through the CDC’s three phases for reopening, I’m guessing football, soccer, volleyball and even basketball teams will be able to begin conditioning and strength training as units in July.

Razorback head football coach Sam Pittman has made it clear that he would like for the NCAA to allow teams to also be able work with a football during this time of conditioning to make up for some lost time because of the loss of spring practice. Actual football practice would begin in early August with an eye toward beginning the season in September.

Again, this is just my hopeful speculation based on what Sankey said Thursday and what a few others have said here and there. I could be way off base.

But, I’m ready for any ray of hope concerning the return of sports at this moment.