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SEC follows NCAA in clearing athletes to return to campus

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Gamecocks spring football game

South Carolina coach Will Muschamp got some great news Friday when the SEC lifted its ban on open athletic facilities during the coronavirus pandemic. Sean Rayford/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — In the strongest step yet toward playing college football in the fall, the presidents and chancellors of the SEC voted Friday to re-open their athletic facilities on June 8. The move clears the way for football players to report to campus, where they can begin voluntary training for the season.

The NCAA announced Wednesday that all football and basketball players (men’s and women’s) could return to campus June 1 for voluntary activities. The SEC’s announcement clarifies that ruling for member schools and includes other sports.

"Based on the decision today by the Southeastern Conference presidents and chancellors, the University of South Carolina will be ready to host football student-athletes on campus for voluntary workouts on June 8," athletics director Ray Tanner said in a statement. "They will be on campus several days before to get tested for the COVID-19 virus."

USC’s fall sports include football, men’s and women’s soccer, volleyball and women’s cross country. All athletes plus the basketball teams are expected to begin trickling back to campus in the first week of June for summer conditioning.

The re-opening will come with “strict supervision of designated university personnel and safety guidelines” developed by each school. All schools have to conform to their state guidelines.

All athletes will undergo a three-stage screening process before they arrive, in the first three days on arrival and then on a daily basis. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will be immediately isolated while the rest of the team and facilities will be examined for similar positives.

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"The safe and healthy return of our student-athletes, coaches, administrators and our greater university communities have been and will continue to serve as our guiding principle as we navigate this complex and constantly-evolving situation," SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. "At this time, we are preparing to begin the fall sports season as currently scheduled, and this limited resumption of voluntary athletic activities on June 8 is an important initial step in that process."

The SEC suspended all athletic activities and shuttered all facilities in March to battle the coronavirus pandemic, which cancelled the remainder of spring football practice for every school and ended all of their spring sports seasons. As the virus’ wave has flattened and states have begun to return to normal, universities were able to begin planning on if and how football, the financial engine for every athletics department, could be played.

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When it starts, how it looks, whether or not fans are allowed to enter stadiums and what preventative measures will be in place to curb another outbreak will still have to be determined. But in terms of getting ready to play the season, athletes will soon be allowed to report to campus and have access to the weight rooms and nutrition plans they didn’t have during the shutdown.

Football players normally take most of May off, after finishing spring practice and the academic semester, before reporting to campus in June for summer classes and workouts. USC coach Will Muschamp has said he believes a player needs two full months to get in shape for the season, one for conditioning and one, usually August, for practice and preseason camp.

Having players able to come back by June 8 would fit that timeline and allow for contingencies. Muschamp said on a Tennessee radio program this week that the team would have social-distancing regulations in place, with only 10-12 players in the football operations building at one time and most team meetings still held via Zoom teleconferencing.

As an institution, USC has already announced a revised fall academic calendar, eliminating fall break and switching back to remote learning after Thanksgiving break. The football regular season ends then as well, with USC’s Nov. 28 game at Clemson.

What football will look like is still to be determined. Tanner said Thursday that USC is looking at several scenarios, from allowing no more than 15,000 fans in Williams-Brice Stadium up to a full crowd in the approximately 80,000-seat arena.

But Tanner did say that all 14 SEC schools were planning on football in the fall, and a final decision on what it will look like will come in mid-July, along with decisions on USC’s other fall sports seasons.

“We still have time on our side,” Tanner said.

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Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

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