For the last two months, Missouri football has been put on hold. Spring practice was cut short a fifth of the way through due to COVID-19 and all athletics were stopped.
But Tigers fans might be able to see a light at the end of the tunnel. The Missouri athletic department resumed operations Monday at the South End Zone Building in Memorial Stadium.Coach Eliah Drinkwitz and the football staff returned to their offices as part of a soft reopening for the campus.
Other Southeastern Conference schools have started to make plans for the summer. Mississippi hopes to bring athletes to campus by July 1, while other universities are eyeing athletes returning in the summer as well.
The only thing that is concrete is that the SEC has suspended all athletic activities until May 31. The conference’s other schools are making tentative plans for when athletic departments will be allowed to open back up again; many schools are setting June 1 as a target date.
Missouri is planning for athletes to return June 1 if the conference lets schools open up then. If facilities are open, Missouri would require all football and men’s and women’s basketball players to be in Columbia, while attendance would be optional for athletes in other sports, per an athletic department spokesperson. The university is also paying student-athlete scholarships through the semester.
Arkansas plans to open its workout facility for optional strength and conditioning training June 1, with football practices starting July 15 to give the team enough time to start the season Sept. 5. Most programs and athletic directors believe a mid-July start for practices would be needed for teams to start the season on time in early September.
Razorbacks athletic director Hunter Yurachek stressed the timeline was just a plan and not a final decision in a tweet Monday. Missouri also said it didn’t have any information on what happens other than athletes returning if facilities are open after May 31, citing the lack of a firm decision by the conference.
The NCAA controls dates for seasons and will be the main decider for who plays when, but member schools have a lot of power within the NCAA. University and conference administrators making up the board of governors that hire the NCAA president and university officials have spots on NCAA committees. If enough teams can play, then they could feasibly convince the NCAA not to delay its season even if not every school is ready to begin at the same time.
The NCAA released a document Friday that gave its nine core principles for member schools to follow when bringing back athletics. Those principles state that state and local authorities must have a resocialization plan in place and that universities must have a resocialization plan for students and student-athletes to return to campus.
The state of Missouri lifted its stay-at-home order Monday. Of the 11 states with the 14 member SEC institutions, only Kentucky and Louisiana are currently under stay-at-home orders. The University of Kentucky and Louisiana State are the only member schools in those states, giving them a possible extra hurdle to return to action. Kentucky and LSU aren’t alone, however; many states around the country still have stay-at-home orders in place with stronger restrictions than the ones in Missouri, Arkansas and other midwestern and southern states starting to ease restrictions. SEC schools might be ready to return to competition before other power conference schools due to their location in states that lift restrictions earlier than other parts of the country.
If the SEC can play in September before other schools are ready, it’s possible it could start a season on its own.
“There is room for different conferences to make different decisions,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said during an appearance on Jacksonville radio station 1010 XL on April 30. “If there’s a couple of programs that aren’t able, does that stop everyone? I’m not sure it does. But the ability for us to stay connected will remain important.”
The next hurdle after local resocialization plans would be following the NCAA principle of getting a plan in place for students and faculty to return to campus. Without in-person classes or students being allowed on campus, it would be difficult for the SEC to rationalize having any athletic events. Missouri will be operating remotely through the summer, but its status for the fall is still up in the air.
MU System President Mun Choi sent out an email April 22 that said the university expects to return to in-person classes in the fall. But on April 23, Choi said he was less optimistic about returning in the fall and mentioned the possibility of hybrid classes with remote and in-person instruction.
Other member schools have announced plans for in-person fall classes. The University of South Carolina announced its decision Wednesday that in-person classes will return in mid-August and the University of Alabama announced plans April 29 to resume in-person classes in the fall.
Acceptable resocialization plans don’t have to mean everyone is back on campus, which could be a good sign for Missouri if classes aren’t in person at the start of the fall semester.
“The key is — some students are able to be back on campus ... We’re likely to see a phased approach,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told The Athletic.