Opinion: SEC football should require COVID-19 vaccination to attend games, help turn corner in lagging South

NCAA Football

All across the Southeastern Conference, administrators are counting on full stadiums for football this fall. After a season that lacked the pageantry and ambiance of a typical in-person experience, 2021 should look and feel like something close to normal and signal a real turning of the corner on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like the rest of us, college football programs across the country are counting on the vaccination rates nationally to be high enough that COVID-19 is no longer a massive threat to both public health and their business model. But in the South in particular, college football should take an active role in making that happen.

A year ago, administrators and coaches said it was important to the morale of the country to play a college football season. Now, they can make an even more valuable contribution by having coaches aggressively promote the vaccines and requiring fans to be vaccinated to enter college football stadiums this fall.

Nowhere would that hit home more than in the SEC footprint. Looking at the numbers, it’s badly needed.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alabama trails the nation at 68,509 vaccine doses administered per 100,000 people over the age of 18, followed by Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia in that order among the states. South Carolina has done slightly better than its neighbors, while Texas and Florida are a bit closer to the middle of the pack.

This is no longer an availability issue. There are enough doses out there that anyone who eagerly wants to be vaccinated will be vaccinated by the beginning of summer. President Biden set a target Tuesday of having 70 percent of the adult population get at least one dose by July 4. But with that number currently sitting at about 56 percent with demand slowing nationally since mid-April, that would likely mean some people who aren’t planning on getting a shot changing their minds.

The national conversation on how to do that in recent days has centered a lot on trying not to demean people who are hesitant but figuring out how to incentivize people to get vaccinated. In fact, that’s what is happening inside college football programs as we speak with coaches and administrators presenting a choice to their players: Do you want to continue getting swabs stuck up your nose and being subjected to contact tracing, or do you want to take the shot and avoid all that?

A limited number of fans in the student section, seated according to COVID-19 restrictions requiring social distancing and masks, watch a college football game between LSU and Mississippi State in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
A limited number of fans in the student section, seated according to COVID-19 restrictions requiring social distancing and masks, watch a college football game between LSU and Mississippi State in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

As the South lags behind the rest of the country, is there any single thing that could be more motivational than telling people they need to show proof of vaccination to get inside Bryant-Denny Stadium or the Swamp?

That kind of move might be controversial in some quarters, but it wouldn’t be particularly radical. Right now, if you want to go to a Brooklyn Nets game, you either have to show proof of vaccination or take a COVID-19 test shortly before or upon arrival at the arena. The Atlanta Hawks have rolled out a plan to have a section in the playoffs for fully vaccinated fans where no social distancing is required. There’s been some discussion in Buffalo about local officials allowing full capacity at Bills games in 2021 — but only to those who are fully vaccinated.

These types of things are likely to show up in many areas of our lives over the next several months with certain types of businesses treating those who have been vaccinated one way and those who haven’t another.

College campuses, in particular, are in a unique situation because football games bring tens of thousands of people in contact with their community from various surrounding areas. If you’re a campus health official who wants to keep potential variants out of the campus population, is there risk if a significant portion of fans coming into town haven’t been vaccinated?

So far, there’s been no serious conversation coming out of SEC schools about requiring proof of vaccination to attend games, and frankly, not a whole lot of vaccine advocacy, either.

Last month, Piedmont Healthcare in Georgia posted Tweets showing several Bulldogs football players and coach Kirby Smart getting their shots. Other than that, you can’t find any public service announcements from these high profile coaches encouraging people to get vaccinated. Is there really nothing Nick Saban can do to get Alabama out of last place?

What’s tricky about the current situation is that most schools are not ready to require COVID-19 vaccinations for students. Though a few prominent schools like Notre Dame and Rutgers have made that decision already, more are waiting until the Food and Drug Administration officially approves them rather than the current Emergency Use Authorization under which they’re being distributed.

Unfortunately, though, the vaccines have been co-opted to a degree in political signaling. Colleges, particularly in the South, are very concerned about a severe backlash from fans if they required vaccination to enter the stadium. Rather than framing it as “This is how we get back to full stadiums, no masks and a return to normal,” it becomes another battle in a right/left culture war that would lead Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News for days on end.

SEC football is a big enough incentive for so many Southerners that it could have a real impact on a part of the country that isn’t getting enough people vaccinated. Schools should play that card while they still can.

Follow columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: SEC football should require fans be vaccinated to attend games

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