Barring any COVID-19-related circumstances that could compromise the sport, the SWAC spring football season will begin in earnest, says Commissioner Dr. Charles McClelland.
“The answer to that is simply is yes,” said McClelland during SWAC Media Days earlier this month in reference to whether the 2021 season would start as scheduled.
In July, the Southwestern Athletic Conference Council of Presidents and Chancellors voted to officially cancel fall sports in 2020, including football out of concern what was then an unbridled surge in coronavirus cases within the league’s regional areas.
But a lot about the virus, and how the college sports ecosystem has adapted to working in the middle of a pandemic, has been learned in the seven months since the collective decision was made to shut it all down.
The league gained an advantage by being able to observe and draw counsel from FBS conferences that either completed full or partial seasons this past fall.
McClelland, as part of a national commissioners consortium, met frequently with other conference leaders on best practices and a “lessons learned”examination of navigating challenges that surrounded competing during one of the most uncertain and unique periods in NCAA history.
“There have been a lot of opportunities for us to gain knowledge about what they did and how they’ve been able to maneuver through this process, and some of the lessons that they had to learn the hard way,” he said. “So we do thank them. And we have stolen all (information) that we could steal from those conferences and we will continue to steal them.”
One key component in the league’s comfort to move forward is its relationships with SWAC medical advisory committee along with implementing guidance from state and local health departments in addition to the direction it receives from athletic medical staff associated with each institution.
Another is how the SWAC has maneuvered during the current men’s and women’s basketball season. Despite 25 total conference games since January being affected by COVID-19, McClelland and the league were encouraged that the postponements and cancelations were not a result of in-game transmission.
The majority of stoppages in play were attributed to a combination of infections acquired outside of basketball-related activities and contact tracing protocols that limited the ability of teams to field available participants to compete, McClelland said.
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“Those pauses were anticipated,” he said. “As a matter of fact, the pauses mean that local professionals and our trainers are doing an outstanding job. Just because a game is canceled, does not necessarily mean that a student-athlete has contracted COVID-19.
“In many instances, the contact tracing has kept our student-athletes as safe as possible based on the advisement of the medical advisory committee. To this day, there have been zero student-athletes that have been infected with COVID-19 on the court.”
Those findings seem to support evidence compiled by FBS leagues and health experts which indicated there were few instances of on-field COVID-19 transmission during games in 2020.
While the SWAC is certain it can complete what amounts to a non-traditional schedule with all but one school playing six regular-season conference games when contests begin in February, disruptions are expected due to the virulent nature of the now mutating virus.
The United States has averaged more than 167,000 new cases over the last seven days on the heels of what appears to be a sharp post-holiday case decline, according to data compiled by The COVID-19 Tracking Project. For comparison’s sake, when the SWAC decided to hold off on playing fall sports, the country’s daily rate of new cases was around 47,000.
“We do anticipate some stoppages within football in the game we have a contingency plan to do so,” said McClelland. “The good thing is we’re not participating in the playoffs. We are participating only in the (SWAC) championship game so it gives us greater flexibility to be able to make that adjustment as far as stoppages are concerned.”
This is all new territory for the SWAC. Every decision the league and its member institutions make over the next few months will be predicated on the impact the virus has on the country.
“I would just reiterate what we said before, COVID-19 is going to dictate what we do and how we do it,” said McClelland. “We’re going to follow the advisement of our medical advisory committee and the boots on the ground.
“And if the recommendation comes to us that we are needing to stop, we’re gonna stop. COVID-19 is going to be the driver of this trend. But as long as we can continue to get positive feedback that we can move forward we’re going to continue.”