ARLINGTON, Texas – After a year of Zoom calls and bubbles, the Big 12 Conference commissioner and coaches were happy for a chance to get to see the media in person instead of through a computer monitor for the Big 12 Football Media Days at AT&T Stadium.
It was a sense of normalcy as the world still works its way out of the clutches of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This time last year, we had no clue whether we were going to be playing football when the fall came around,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in opening the two-day event with a bit of retrospect. “Indeed, it was the middle of August before we got to the point of making a decision, and I think we learned that you don’t plan too far ahead. We were advised by our medical professionals to make small adjustments, to listen to our medical advisory committee and the hired consultants that we had.”
Through talking with medical personnel, the conference worked to convey to the players the risks of getting in a sports season last school year – with each sport dealing with some type of alterations to the schedules.
But there will still plenty of questions the league, the NCAA and the athletic departments had to address with their student-athletes this time a year ago.
“We also spent a fair amount of time listening to our student-athletes, and I think that was, in retrospect, I think it was particularly impactful to all of us,” Bowlsby said. “The questions from the young men that were playing football, and we talked to other student-athletes, as well, but we talked a lot to football because of the attention it was getting, and they wanted to know if they go forward and play the season last year, were they going to lose a year of eligibility if they got two or three or four games into it and found that they couldn’t continue.
“They wanted to know if they opted out, were they going to lose their scholarship. And they wanted to know if they were going to be any more likely to contract the virus in practice or in meetings or in a competition. We were able to answer their questions to their satisfaction, and that’s one of the reasons why we got through the year as well as we did, and that’s why our student-athletes, especially in football were, were bought into a confidence that those questions could be answered.”
But with COVID-19 still circumventing the globe, and a rise in a Delta variant, there are still questions that have to be asked and answered from all parties.
Bowlsby said they’ve held meetings with athletic directors across the league twice a week since March 2020 and were beginning to scale those back, but realized they “still have a lot to do.”
“And, so recently I re-introduced the topic that we needed to think about, whether we were going to have competition thresholds this year, what our testing protocols would look like for people that didn’t have vaccine, and I would have to say that among the athletic directors, I don’t know that I’ve ever introduced a topic that was less warmly received than the revisitation of all the protocols and things that we have gone through in the last year,” the Big 12 commissioner said. “And yet, indeed, with the Delta variant, there are good reasons that we need to continue to be vigilant, and we will be. There’s still going to be a fair amount of testing. We had a lot of surprises and disappointments during the last year, but ultimately I think self-discipline became the coin of the realm.”
He said protocols for the upcoming school year have “yet to be determined” but that patience has been the pace when preparing for the upcoming sports seasons.
“Frankly, we’re not excited to think about having to have protocols, but we’re also not unprepared,” Bowlsby said. “So no decisions have been made … but I suspect that some of those protocol issues will be resolved in the next 30 days.”
Impacting the decision-making is the widespread split in approach with the vaccines for COVID-19.
Per the conference commissioner, the league is not a place to be able to mandate coaches or players to get vaccinated, and the fact most institutions are not mandating vaccinations for the general population on campus that it likely won’t be asked to institute a mandate.
And the Big 12 coaches also understand that they aren’t the source of medical expertise when it comes to the virus or vaccine.
“I think our team has been well-versed. It’s an individual decision,” West Virginia coach Neal Brown said. “I can speak from personal experience. I’ve been vaccinated. My wife was vaccinated, 13-year-old daughter, my parents, my wife’s parents. So to share personal experience, but as far as advice, that comes from our medical community.”
But Bowlsby certainly had an opinion on getting vaccinated.
“I think it’s very short-sighted to not get vaccinations. Even if the Delta variant weren’t around, it makes sense to get vaccinated,” he said. “… The potential (of catching the virus) is still there, and I can’t quote chapter and verse for you on the 10 teams and how many of their football players are vaccinated or what percentage, but I know it’s a priority for coaches and for athletics directors, and it’s an appropriate priority for medical professionals, as well. Anybody you ask suggests that you get vaccinated.”
Like with vaccinations, the Big 12 does not appear to be making the decision on how campuses approach fans in the stands for the upcoming season.
Several coaches, including TCU’s Gary Patterson, made note of getting to play in front of a “full stadium” for this upcoming year. And with finances hitting colleges and athletic departments hard from the 25-percent quota for football games, it’s likely many teams will get the opportunity to play in front of a capacity crowd.
“I think university leadership is getting pressure on both sides of it. I think some coaches are pressing to get back to full stadiums, and there are probably people that are pressing to be very cautious about it,” Bowlsby said. “I think all of our schools are relying on local health officials and doctors that serve on our conference medical committee. So we are drawing upon the best information that we can.
“In the end, these kinds of decisions have always been made on a local basis, local health officials, in some cases governors’ offices. But if we get to a point where public assembly is ill-advised because of a spike in the variant, it’s not inconceivable we would go back and try and revisit those things on an institutional basis or collectively.”