Several SEC players reportedly voiced coronavirus concerns in ‘confidential’ meeting with officials

Several college football players reportedly expressed concern for their safety in a private meeting with Southeastern Conference officials and medical advisers the day before the league announced its plans to proceed with a shortened, league-only season in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Wednesday meeting included more than a dozen SEC football players, who, in an audio recording obtained by The Washington Post, were told that positive cases were a “given” and that the league would be unable to prevent all outbreaks of the virus.

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The players were part of the league’s student-leadership council. One player reportedly asked: “For so much unknown in the air right now, is it worth having a football season without certainty?”

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey reportedly responded: “Part of our work is to bring as much certainty in the midst of this really strange time as we can so you can play football in the most healthy way possible, with the understanding there aren’t any guarantees in life.”

Sankey has since addressed the report in a statement, which said the call was intended to be “confidential,” and the SEC issued a similar statement that said the players “expressed appreciation for the honest dialogue, indicated the discussion was beneficial and requested a similar videoconference in the future.”

“We will work diligently to make the right decisions, with the best information available, in a dynamic and changing environment,” Sankey said.

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Dr. Catherine O’Neal, an infectious disease specialist with Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, was reportedly a part of the meeting. She is recorded saying that young medical residents at her hospital who have contracted COVID-19 have complained of being exhausted for 4 to 6 weeks. She said that could affect an athlete’s performance.

An Our Lady of the Lake spokesman, Ryan Cross, redirected a request for O’Neal to comment to the SEC. League spokesman Herb Vincent said there is no further comment beyond the statement.

MoMo Sanogo, an Ole Miss linebacker, reportedly asked why his school was planning to return students to campus for fall classes. He has four classes a week and feared that he could be unknowingly infected by classmates who go to bars and parties at night.

An unidentified official reportedly told Sanogo that classes will have safety measures implemented, such as social distancing and mask mandates, but admitted it was “not fair” to athletes and suggested Sanogo remind the people around him “to act more responsibly.”

Keeath Magee, a Texas A&M linebacker, reportedly voiced similar concerns.

“You guys have answered a lot of questions the best way you could, and we really appreciate it,” he reportedly said in the recording. “But as much as you guys don’t know… it’s not good enough. We want to play. We want to see football. We want to return to normal as much as possible. But it’s just that with all this uncertainty, all this stuff that’s still circulating in the air, y’all know it kind of leaves some of us still scratching my head.”

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The recording offered a peek into how some college football players feel about safety issues as they proceed into a season. The “will they/won’t they play football” conversation has mostly been driven by government officials, NCAA leadership, conference commissioners, athletic directors and head coaches — all of whom have expressed intent to preserve a lucrative industry in which players have little compensation or voice.

Health and safety concerns have been addressed by such leadership. The SEC announced in mid-July that players who opted to sit out the fall season would not lose their scholarships  — an action that was recommended by the league’s athletic directors and approved unanimously by the league’s presidents and chancellors.

Several professional and collegiate players have opted out of their football seasons while leagues grapple with constructing protocols that will allow them to proceed with games safely.

Illinois running back Ra’Von Bonner told the Chicago Tribune on Monday that “the risks are greater than the reward.” The Big Ten Conference was the first Power Five league to cancel its nonconference games because of the virus, a move the Pac-12 made soon after.

On Tuesday, two New Orleans Saints tight ends — Cole Wick and Jason Vander Laan — opted out of the NFL season. Training camps in the NFL fully began Tuesday, while the spread of the virus continues to surge nationally, and former LSU players Justin Jefferson (a first-round wide receiver picked by the Minnesota Vikings) and Blake Ferguson (a sixth-round long-snapper picked by the Miami Dolphins) both appeared on the NFL’s new reserve/COVID-19 list.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron told the Baton Rouge Rotary Club that no current LSU players have chosen to sit out this season due to health concerns and that “I think we have two guys right now” that have tested positive for the virus.”

“None of our players have talked about that,” Orgeron said. “I know that they have the option. Our players are eager to play. These guys are elite. These guys want to win championships. They believe in each other. I don’t expect much of that to happen.”

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Orgeron is among LSU’s top athletic officials who have made it clear in the past they intend to play football as scheduled. He expressed that football is “important for America” in a roundtable with Vice President Mike Pence at Tiger Stadium on July 14, and Orgeron told Fox News the next day that he thought there would be a football season in the fall with “some adjustments.”

The NCAA issued guidelines July 16 for proceeding with fall sports. The guidelines included isolating players who test positive for at least 10 days, quarantining people for 14 days who had high-risk contact with those who test positive, and testing all players within 72 hours of a game — measures that are significant hurdles during a pandemic due to costs and slow turnaround times during virus surges.

Coronavirus cases have recently surged in the SEC region. In the past seven days, seven of the nation’s top 10 states by case numbers are states with SEC schools.

In Louisiana, positive tests for coronavirus have been found in all 64 parishes. There have been 116,280 cases and 3,835 deaths caused by COVID-19 in the state

LSU is still preparing to have fans in Tiger Stadium, releasing plans for cashless transactions and mobile ticketing in the past two days. The department is still preparing multiple scenarios for seating and capacity, but athletic director Scott Woodward has been cautious about the possibilities of playing football.

“The reality is, we are not where we need to be with regard to the spread of COVID-19 to safely compete as scheduled for now,” Woodward said in mid-July. “I cannot stress enough how important it is for all of us to take seriously public health recommendations to keep our communities safe.”

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