With the news of the Pac-12 and Big Ten moving their fall sports seasons to the spring, due to unknown health effects of COVID-19, there were many questions left surrounding the information those conferences evaluated but also the data others like the SEC, ACC and Big 12 had.
On Thursday Alabama Athletic Director Greg Byrne made himself available to the media via a zoom conference where he took questions in an effort to clear the air a bit and add some context to what is being discussed within the SEC.
“There has been some, but not a ton of discussions on a spring season,” said Byrne. “We are focused on our plans for this fall. Our goal is to play this fall. We have adjusted a lot since March and we will continue to evolve and adjust as necessary.”
For the University of Alabama, the current impact of COVID-19 on its incoming students has been encouraging with less than one percent of the 30,000 returning students testing positive.
Head football coach Nick Saban even mentioned that the team has had just a two percent positive ratio since the beginning of July.
Questions have also surfaced in regards to a possible bubble for college sports, adopting the NBA’s path of dealing with reducing infections. Right now there is no plan to put one into place but Byrne described the athlete’s current confines as an “umbrella” and with classes beginning on campus next week there will be even more information to evaluate and decide what the season may look like.
But one of the top reasons highlighted by the other conferences to move to the spring is the possible future health risks of the virus, specifically noting myocarditis which is when the heart suffers inflammation on the middle layer of the heart wall. This can cause the heart itself to weaken and lead to heart failure, an abnormal heartbeat and even sudden death.
Byrne stressed that the medical team had conducted thorough cardiovascular testing with no cases being found in any student-athletes.
“We had some positive tests when our student-athletes first came back,” Byrne said. “We’ve had a dramatic decrease since they’ve gotten under our umbrella, and that’s good. I am not a medical expert, but I know myocarditis has been in the news recently. That’s something, in our discussions with our medical team, when we have a student-athlete come into our program, we do baseline cardiovascular testing, and that gives us a baseline for any cardiovascular issues with our student-athletes coming in. And when we do that from time to time, you identify an issue that a student-athlete didn’t even know that they had before they came here.
“I can tell you right now, we have not had a case of myocarditis. Can I tell you, unequivocally, that it won’t happen? No, that would be disingenuous. But as of right now, that’s where we are with it. It’s something that we’re monitoring closely. I don’t know what every institution does from a baseline standpoint for their student-athletes. … But we’re doing what we can at the University of Alabama to make sure we’re trying to support the health and well-being of our student-athletes through this environment that we’re in right now.”
Alabama’s many season ticket holders and students have also been wondering what the capacity of Bryant-Denny Stadium will look like this season which Byrne confirmed that the seating will be significantly reduced.
“Once we get those final dates, then we will release our ticketing plan,” said Byrne. “But I can tell you the capacity will be significantly reduced. Emphasis on the significant. Whether we play or we don’t play, there are significant financial challenges that athletic departments all across the country are going to have, including what we’re going to have to address here at Alabama. And we’ve already taken steps.
“As soon as everything got shut down last spring, we instantly froze budgets. We’ve tried to be very discrete as much as possible from a spending standpoint. And we have other plans that we have been developing over the past several months that we will talk about with more detail once we know what we are working with.”
Byrne also touched on possible further alterations to schedule dates but noted that he believes in the importance of having the Iron Bowl at the end of the season.
“I think there is something to be said of having that game towards the end of the year,” Byrne said. “Whenever they tell us to play it, we will play it. But I think there is something to be said about the meaning of it being towards the end of the year.”
To Byrne, what is most important for the department, staff and players to continue doing is to follow the guidelines laid out by the medical officials in order to ensure that a fall sports season to remain possible.
“If you follow the CDC guidelines from a contract-tracing standpoint, I think you have an opportunity to move forward and try to play — whatever sport it is — in the fall,” Byrne said. “That’s what we’ve been doing as a department, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do. If the fall sports season is called off at some point then, obviously, we’ll follow those guidelines. But I think we’ve heard clearly from our student-athletes that the great majority of them want an opportunity to try to play.”
Alabama will begin practicing on Aug. 17 and is set to begin regular season play on Sept. 26 against an opponent to be named later.
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Patrick Dowd is a Reporter for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter, via Pat_Dowd77