COLUMBIA, Mo. - The Southeastern Conference has yet to call an audible on its football schedules for the coming season. But the play clock is approaching zero.
While the Big Ten and Pac-12 have already moved forward in canceling nonconference games, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey offered a grim assessment on the season’s fate Saturday.
In an interview on ESPN’s “Marty and McGee” radio show, Sankey said he’s preparing to play the 2020 season as scheduled but knows that the coronavirus will “guide us in that decision-making.” Sankey said his concern for the 2020 season is “high to very high.”
"We put a medical advisory group together in early April with the question of, 'What do we have to do to get back to activity?' and they've been a big part of the conversation," Sankey told ESPN’s Marty Smith and Ryan McGee. "But the direct reality is not good and the notion that we've politicized medical guidance of distancing, and breathing masks, and hand sanitization, ventilation of being outside, being careful where you are in buildings. There's some very clear advice about … you can't mitigate and eliminate every risk, but how do you minimize the risk? ... We are running out of time to correct and get things right, and as a society we owe it to each other to be as healthy as we can be."
Sankey later tweeted: “I want to provide the opportunity for college athletics to be part of the fall, but we need to all consider our behavior to make possible what right now appears very difficult.”
Seven of the 11 states that are home to SEC schools have reported at least 40,000 cases of COVID-19, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Sankey added Saturday that, "The reality right now is the trends in our region, in our nation, are not in the positive direction for being able to have normal experiences."
On Thursday, the Big Ten announced plans to play only conference contests for all fall sports teams this fall, which wipes 42 nonconference football games off the schedule, including high-profile contests between Michigan and Washington, Ohio State and Oregon and Wisconsin and Notre Dame. By playing only conference games, the Pac-12 will miss out on games matching USC and Alabama and Colorado and Texas A&M, among others.
The SEC has discussed moving to conference-only schedules, Mizzou athletics director Jim Sterk confirmed Thursday, but Sankey said the league’s deadline for that decision is late July.
"That literally is playing out in front of us every day," Sankey said in Saturday’s interview. "That's why I don't feel any pressure because of somebody else's decisions. We're trying to make the right decisions for us, for the Southeastern Conference. It does have an impact because I've said publicly we're all linked nationally, so when other people make decisions, yup, there's an impact, but also we're going to look at our situation and make a decision that's appropriate for the Southeastern Conference and most importantly for the health of our student-athletes."
Mizzou’s four nonconference games include home contests against Central Arkansas, Eastern Michigan and Louisiana-Lafayette. The Tigers also play at Brigham Young, the second matchup in a two-game series that started with the 2015 game at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium.
Mizzou agreed to pay Central Arkansas $425,000 for the Sept. 5 home opener, but according to the contract, obtained by the Post-Dispatch this week, the two schools signed an amendment on June 18 that added a pandemic clause, saying they will reschedule the game if “reasonably possible” if the game can’t be played because of “weather conditions, labor strikes, wars, acts of God, pandemic, public health crisis, government restrictions/orders or other such emergencies.” Mizzou’s general counsel advised MU add a pandemic clause to all four nonconference game contracts.
The original Eastern Michigan contract said both parties would be relieved of any obligations in the event of “fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, epidemic, war, invasion, hostilities, rebellion, insurrection, confiscation by order of the government or military or public authority.”
Otherwise, the team that cancels the agreement would have owed the other $900,000.
Mizzou agreed to pay Eastern Michigan $1.1 million for the Sept. 26 game. If either team breaches the contract it owes the other school $1 million. Mizzou and EMU have not added a pandemic clause to the contract. Neither have Mizzou and Louisiana-Lafeyette. MU is paying the Sun Belt Conference team $1.3 million for the Nov. 21 game and would owe that same amount for breaking the contract.
The Missouri-BYU contract calls for a $1 million payment if either team cancels the game set for Oct. 10 in Provo, Utah.
“The lawyers could become very busy depending on how this all shakes out,” Mizzou deputy AD Nick Joos said. “One opponent didn’t necessarily like the language and said we can move the game down the road. We’re scheduled pretty far out, so it’ll be a long time before we play the game. There are some options in that regard. Some have suggested if the opponent you’re playing doesn’t have the testing level that the Power 5 requires, the host institution can pay for the testing and it would come out of the guarantee. That’s an option that’s been discussed.”
Should the SEC drop its nonconference games, it’s unclear if the league will replace them with more SEC games — that’s an option under consideration, Sterk said — or if the league will scrap the entire schedule and start from scratch. Mizzou’s current schedule includes games with the other six Eastern Division teams plus Western Division foes Mississippi State and Arkansas.
Dave Matter brings you the latest updates from the Mizzou sports scene.