COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Just hours after the Southeastern Conference announced they would allow student-athletes to return to campus for in-person voluntary workouts, South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner spoke to reporters via video conference to detail what that procedure would look like for the Gamecocks.
Tanner noted that the university’s football program along with the men’s and women’s basketball programs would be allowed to return for conditioning. However, players would have to take a COVID-19 and antibody test. Players will be allowed to begin workouts if their results returned negative. Any positive result would result in the student-athlete being placed in isolation for 14 days while being monitored by medical staff. Players may only begin or resume workouts after showing they are symptom-free after the 14-day isolation period.
“I would like to make sure that we all understand, and it’s very important and serious, that the health, safety, and well-being of all of our student-athletes, our students, our faculty, our staff, our coaches, and everybody on campus are our number one priority. That will remain our status throughout this endeavor with athletics returning to campus, with students returning to campus, and what we do going forward.”
When coaches received the news from the conference regarding the decision to allow voluntary workouts, Tanner said they still had lots of questions regarding how this would work.
“I’ve been extremely delighted to engage with our coaches,” Tanner said. “They have a lot of questions themselves, but they’re very concerned about what we’re going through with this coronavirus and we have shared the protocols. They have given us their protocols. They’re anxious to see their student-athletes again. It hasn’t been a focus of a competitive position where ‘We’ve got to get our players back. We’ve got to get back to work. We don’t want anybody to get an advantage.’ It hasn’t been that at all. It’s been more about the health, safety, and welfare of getting everybody back together if possible.”
Since all athletic activities were suspended by the SEC in March, officials have been working to find protocols that will help keep players and staff safe from COVID-19 when they return.
Tanner said clusters of four to six players will be brought in before June 8 to be tested for COVID-19. Once the players are tested, they will remain in those clusters to participate in voluntary workouts, in their housing accommodations, while eating, and in socializing activities.
Even with players grouped in small clusters, Tanner told reporters Friday that there is some concern regarding players gathering outside their clusters.
“It is a concern,” Tanner admitted. “You know, we have a lot of young people that live here in Columbia that are students that live off-campus that don’t necessarily go home. You started to see some gatherings around Five Points that gave us some serious concern -- the lack of face coverings and social distancing. That is a concern, but we’re going to do our very best to emphasize the importance with our student-athletes before they return to campus. It will begin before that. We’ll try to emphasize how important it is to follow the proper protocols to avoid getting involved with this deadly disease and having to deal with it.”
Students and staff members will be tested daily before entering the football operations center. Student-athletes will enter or exit on a staggered schedule. Tanner also noted that all of the facilities have been a strict cleaning process to make sure they are fully disinfected. Protocols have also been implemented by the athletics department to disinfect machines and equipment in the training room and other training spaces. Additional hand sanitizing stations have also been added near entrances, elevators, and parking garages at 650 Lincoln, where student-athletes are housed. Student-athletes and staff will be required to wash their hands frequently and wear face coverings in public. Social distancing guidelines will also be emphasized.
With all the new protocols, Tanner recognizes there is a lot to digest for players and staff. Because of that, the challenge to implement these procedures will be a tall order.
“I think we would all understand that this is not in the playbook,” Tanner said. “When you become an athletics director or anybody on this campus, you just do not anticipate what we have gone through. I can tell you that being a part of the university task force under President Caslen’s leadership and being in athletics, I’ve been so impressed with the diligence, the expertise from our scientists, our epidemiologists, and all the work that has gone into the development of a protocol to return to campus. It hasn’t been a decision, we’re just coming back. We tried to put the scientific evidence in front of us to give us an opportunity.
“But it’s a daunting task. It’s like playing a game. You want to win and we are trying to win with what we’re going to with this protocol bringing our young people back as we do for the summer to train and when we return in the fall with our students as well. We want to have the mitigation in place to make it a very successful situation here at our university.”
Tanner said athletes who do not feel comfortable returning to campus for voluntary workouts because of the COVID-19 pandemic will not lose their scholarship.
“It’s not a situation where we want to force them to do anything,” Tanner explained, “but we also can’t allow them to return to activity without doing the testing.”
Football can begin workouts on June 8 following the previously mentioned protocols. A decision regarding other sports will determine when their student-athletes will return for workouts.
To see the full list of protocols, click here.