Georgia holds practice at their facilities at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

SEC presidents allow football back on campus on June 8

Well, at least the voluntary practice portion of it is. But that’s a significant development in terms of college football possibly making an on-time return to playing games in late summer.

Presidents and chancellors of the SEC’s 14-member institutions, in their regularly scheduled video conference call on Friday, voted to allow student-athletes in football and men’s and women’s basketball to return to campuses on June 8.

“We’re excited to now know when players can begin returning to campus,” Georgia football coach Kirby Smart said in a statement released through UGA Friday afternoon. “We’ll be coordinating our efforts with the medical staff keeping the primary focus on health and safety of our student-athletes and those working directly with them during this time. We’ll be working in the coming days on finalizing plans to implement the return of our players. I’m sure they are looking forward to returning and begin working toward what we hope is a regular season in the fall.”

The student-athletes' return will be executed under the supervision of designated university personnel and the strict adherence of safety guidelines developed by each institution, the SEC said in its announcement. The presidents’ decision came two days after an NCAA Council vote gave individual schools and conferences the discretion to allow student-athletes in those sports back on campus on or after June 1.

“The safe and healthy return of our student-athletes, coaches, administrators and our greater university communities have been and will continue to serve as our guiding principle as we navigate this complex and constantly evolving situation,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. “At this time, we are preparing to begin the fall sports season as currently scheduled, and this limited resumption of voluntary athletic activities on June 8 is an important initial step in that process. Thanks to the blueprint established by our task force and the dedicated efforts of our universities and their athletics programs, we will be able to provide our student-athletes with far better health and wellness education, medical and psychological care and supervision than they would otherwise receive on their own while off campus or training at public facilities as states continue to reopen.”

That means an on-time summer return for the Georgia football team. The Bulldogs, like most SEC teams, were unable to conduct any of the 15 practices for the spring session. They were scheduled to take the field on March 17, just two days after the SEC invoked its ban due to the coronavirus outbreak.

But it had always been the plan for returning lettermen and any the 25 freshman signees who academically qualified to enroll in classes to come to Athens for voluntary summer workouts the first of June. 

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SEC football’s return is the latest evidence of a national trend to slowly reintroduce team sports back into our daily lives. In March, the SEC followed the NCAA’s recommendation to ban all sports activity on campuses — including conditioning and training — through May 31 to limit the spread of the pandemic. Baseball, basketball, gymnastics, softball, tennis and track and field all had their seasons canceled at that time.

NASCAR returned to competition last weekend, the PGA Tour returns on June 11 and the NFL and NBA are expected to follow suit.

The Georgia High School Association (GHSA) on Thursday voted to allow small groups of student-athletes to begin strength and conditioning on school campuses on June 8. The move came with numerous stipulations, including testing and limiting the size of those groups and adhering to health-and-safety and social-distancing guidelines. 

Likewise, the SEC’s motion Friday to allow the student-athletes back on campus to train and participate in limited team activities came with several caveats and safeguards. Screening for symptoms of the COVID-19 will be at the forefront of the plan

There will be a three-stage screening process that will begin before student-athletes arrive on campus, within 72 hours of entering athletic facilities and then on a daily basis upon resumption of athletics activities. Symptomatic team members, including coaches and support staff, will be tested immediately.

During the month of June, only strength-and-conditioning personnel will be allowed to supervise any athletic activities. A current waiver that permits eight hours of virtual film review between coaches and players has been extended through June 30.

Consistent with NCAA regulations, organized practices and other required physical activities remain prohibited in all sports. As previously announced, in-person camps and coaches clinics remain suspended until July 31. Preseason camps for teams usually begin the first week of August.

The Bulldogs are scheduled to open the 2020 football season on Sept. 7 against Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is among those who expect that game to be played as scheduled, with or without fans.

“I know everybody wants to have a crowd there,” Kemp said on the Paul Finebaum Show on Wednesday. “I would urge people to continue to follow the guidance so we can drive these numbers down so that we can do that.”

Listen to Georgia Gov. Kemp on Paul Finebaum Show

The general consensus is that the college football season will start on time. However, it has not been determined whether fans will be allowed to attend at full or limited capacity. Sanford Stadium seats 92,746 spectators, while Mercedes-Benz Stadium seats 71,000 for Falcons games and up to 80,000 for special events. 

UGA officials have had a plan in place for several weeks anticipating the return of student-athletes to campus. In the case of football, that's an intensive exercise.

The Bulldogs have 87 players on football scholarship and can have as many as 23 other players on the roster as walkons. They will be required to be quarantined the first 14 days upon return to campus.

Summer workouts are considered voluntary by NCAA rules and traditionally players stay in their own on-campus or off-campus housing. Keeping them isolated from contact with the general population will be a priority.

“Habits will have to change, because our life has changed, thanks to the virus,” Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity said. “We can’t ignore that and act like it’s business as usual.”

Meanwhile, a very regimented washing and disinfecting plan will be executed daily. High-traffic areas of the Butts-Mehre complex will be cleaned hourly, while other areas will be subjected to daily cleanings.

As a result of ongoing construction of a new $80 million football operations facility on the premises, the Bulldogs are limited to two practice fields this year, rather than their usual four. Oneis inside the Payne indoor facility and the other is outside the north end of that building. Both are what is called “FieldTurf,” an artificial surface featuring fake grass and rubber pellets.

With those in constant use, utility vehicles pulling containers of industrial-strength disinfectant will be used to shower them daily.

Other precautions include electrostatic machines cleaning air-conditioning ducts, workouts being conducted in limited-numbered shifts and monitoring of player and coach movements.

Likewise, Sanford Stadium will be thoroughly cleaned over the summer. If and when games are slated to return, all concessions will be limited to prepackaged “grab-and-go” foods, none of which will be prepared on the premises.

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