SEC commissioner Greg Sankey urges increased vaccinations, says forfeits are possible in 2021

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The 2020 college football season trudged along amid a constant stream of game postponements and cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Things will look a lot different in 2021.

While the pandemic isn’t completely in the rearview mirror, the outlook for the 2021 season is a whole lot brighter with vaccines widely available. And because of the vaccines, conferences will not be anywhere near as forgiving if a team is not healthy enough to participate.

While encouraging football programs to increase their vaccination rates during his yearly address at SEC Media Days on Monday, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said that forfeits are possible if a school cannot field a healthy team. 

“COVID-19 vaccines are widely available. They’ve proven to be highly effective. And when people are fully vaccinated, we all have the ability to avoid serious health risks, reduce the virus’ spread and maximize our chances of returning to a normal college football experience and to normal life,” Sankey said.

“With six weeks to go before kickoff, now is the time to seek that full vaccination. And we know nothing is perfect, but the availability and the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines are an important and incredible product of science. It’s not a political football.”

Last year, additional time was built into the schedule to account for “disruptions” caused by cases of COVID-19 spreading throughout college football teams. That won’t be the case this year, which places an added emphasis on roster health, Sankey said. That brings the possibility of forfeits into the equation.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey speaks to reporters during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days Monday, July 19, 2021, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey speaks to reporters during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days Monday, July 19, 2021, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

“You hope not to have disruption, but ‘hope is not a plan’ is the great cliche. We still have roster minimums that exist, just like last year. What I’ve identified for consideration among our membership is we remove those roster minimums and you’re expected to play as scheduled. That means your team needs to be healthy to compete, and if not, that game won’t be rescheduled. And thus, to dispose of the game, the ‘forfeit’ word comes up at this point," Sankey said. 

"We’ve not built in the kind of time we did last year, particularly at the end of the season, to accommodate disruption. And unless we’re going to do that, our teams have to be fully prepared to play their season as scheduled, which is why embedded in my remarks is the vaccination motivation."

Sankey said that six of the conference's 14 football programs are at least 80% vaccinated. For teams that reach 85% vaccinated, they no longer are subjected to frequent testing and indoor mask mandates.

“That number needs to grow and grow rapidly,” Sankey said.

Florida coach Dan Mullen said that his program is at a “pretty high number of vaccinated players” and is “getting close” to the conference’s threshold. The Gators had two games postponed last fall.

Big 12 commissioner had similar remarks last week

Sankey’s sentiments echo comments made last week by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby.

“We are certainly, as we go forward, encouraging student-athletes to get vaccinated. Frankly, anyone not getting vaccinated is taking unnecessary and unwarranted risks,” Bowlsby said at Big 12 Media Days.

“For a student-athlete, you’re rolling the dice on whether or not you’re going to be able to participate because you're going to be in a testing protocol if you’re not vaccinated.”

Like Sankey alluded to in the SEC, Kansas State athletic director Gene Taylor said forfeits could be on the table in the Big 12 as well.

“We are probably not going to have the ability to not play games this season,” Taylor said per the Wichita Eagle. “If you don’t play it on time, you will have to forfeit. We haven’t finalized that yet as a league, but that is where our thinking is at as athletic directors. We don’t have room. Last year, we had breaks in our schedule on purpose. This year, we won’t have the ability to make up those games.”

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