COLUMBIA, Mo. — A week ago, the Southeastern Conference's athletic directors and commissioner Greg Sankey met and decided to move forward with their plans to hold the men's basketball tournament in Nashville, with full fan attendance.
On Tuesday, the conference canceled all remaining conference and non-conference competition, as well as championship events, for all spring sports. The rapid spread of the coronavirus, which now has confirmed cases in all 50 U.S. states, as well as Cole and Boone counties, forced quick and decisive actions.
"Our imaginations, at that time, hadn't gone to the extent we've experienced over the last week, although we had any number of contingency plans," Sankey said on a teleconference Wednesday morning. "While sports are not anywhere near the top of our collective concerns right now, we do have both a responsibility, and I think a reality, that people care greatly about the Southeastern Conference, our universities, our coaches, our student-athletes and the experiences we provide, and we are greatly for their care and their passion.
"I'm also appreciative for the many expressions of support, as people have recognized the difficult decisions that we've had to walk through just like our colleagues have both at the college and professional level. The actions we've taken in the last seven days have impacted our way of life, your way of life, in significant ways, and there's great interest in each of these decisions. The cancellation and suspension of events is a reality tied to the public health issues we're experiencing, and the spread and the desire to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and that has informed our decision-making."
The conference has canceled 11 of its 21 championship events: baseball, men's basketball, equestrian, men's and women's golf, gymnastics, softball, men's and women's swimming and diving, men's and women's track and field and men's and women's tennis.
Some of those championship events were scheduled to be hosted by campus sites, and though Sankey did not have an immediate answer for remediation, he said this year's campus sites would not have to wait 14 years for a full rotation of hosting before their turn came again. Missouri was not scheduled to host any SEC postseason events this spring.
Campus sites set to host championship events are not the only ones that could see a budget shortfall next year. Most of the NCAA's approximately $1 billion in revenue comes from the NCAA Tournament and its television rights deal with CBS/Turner. Sankey did not yet know how the cancellation of the men's basketball tournament would affect finances for SEC member institutions, with the fiscal year ending June 30.
"The financial impact, candidly, has not been at the forefront of our conversations," Sankey said. "We've made decisions based on the health and well-being of people around our programs. There certainly are revenue implications, we have staff working through those, I'm certain every conference is working to assess the financial impact. I'm not going to make predictions, other than we've seen alterations in the NCAA tournament that will no doubt will have a financial impact."
Sankey was asked directly whether any SEC coaches or student-athletes have tested positive for the novel coronavirus strain COVID-19, and what the SEC's response would be. Sankey referred the issue to local health officials and said the SEC would not communicate positive test results, and said the actions already taken, canceling all activities, are the conference's response to the threat of the virus.
There is still no clarity on the NCAA's proposed decision to grant players whose seasons ended early an additional year of eligibility and no official timeline or window when it might be resolved. Sankey said it was an idea he thought makes sense, but wanted to understand the full implications before throwing the SEC's weight behind it.
"I actually just printed about eight pages of analysis from our conference compliance staff," Sankey said. "Myself and my colleagues have had preliminary discussions about what might this mean, I know among the conferences there's conversations as well.
"The first read is, that's an appropriate step, from my perspective, yet we have to understand the full set of implications, and I hope we'll move through those rapidly, because I think one of the assets for our young people is knowing definitively what their eligibility status will be going forward. I do want to say, I don't think this is simply a senior issue. Everybody in our programs, particularly spring sports, has had their season disrupted, so my encouragement is we take a broad look at what type of opportunities we offer going forward."
Sankey said affected winter sports — men's and women's basketball, gymnastics, indoor track, swimming and diving and in Missouri's case, wrestling — should also receive consideration because their conference and/or national title events were not completed, but said it makes more sense to seek a resolution for spring sports and then work on a potential year of eligibility for winter sports athletes.
The conference has not yet looked at postponing the fall season, and Sankey said he is optimistic the fall calendar, starting with SEC media days, scheduled for July 13-16 in Atlanta, will go forward as scheduled. Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz, Florida coach Dan Mullen and LSU coach Ed Orgeron are scheduled to open the first day of the proceedings Monday, July 13, at the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta.
That could obviously change if the virus is not contained by mid-summer and there are still limits on the size of public gatherings, "but my hope is we can return to our normal organized activities, our normal experiences, and be part of that celebration around soccer, volleyball, cross country, football in the fall, but we'll have to see," Sankey said, adding he was optimistic the NCAA could play football's full 12-game regular season.
Tuesday's announcement did not affect spring football practices. Missouri completed two of the 15 allowed spring practices, and canceled the third hours before it was scheduled to start.
"It does not apply to spring practices at this time, and I think that's the important qualifying phrase," Sankey said. "We have said no athletic activities through April 15. That doesn't mean we'll be back and normal, or to practice activities, April 16, there was just a day certain that allows our administrators to communicate with our coaches, our coaches with their student-athletes, and has resulted in the departures from campus.
"If you look at the national public messaging, about no gatherings (of more than) 50 (people), certainly difficult to conduct any football practice under that limitation, and even with smaller numbers that have been communicated, 10 is often referenced, thereby making it impossible into May. I'm not going to be overly optimistic about the return to practice, we haven't fully foreclosed that opportunity, but I think practically, that window's pretty narrow."