Last night saw a mecca of college football matchups from Ohio State vs. Minnesota to Boise State vs. UCF.
From a sellout crowd at Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis to a packed Ohio State bar in New York City, it looked remarkably normal. But despite vaccines, COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in the U.S. — so it’s unclear how long it will stay normal.
The most powerful conference, the SEC, kicked off its season with the Tennessee Vols crushing Bowling Green, 38-6. And tomorrow, 12 more of the conferences’ schools will play.
But the SEC has a particular problem: Several states with SEC schools are battling some of the worst outbreaks in the nation and rank among the country’s lowest vaccination rates.
As of Sept. 3, seven of the 10 states and/or territories with the most cases per 100,000 residents (per The New York Times COVID tracker) also host SEC football on Saturdays.
South Carolina tops the chart, Tennessee ranks second, and Alabama is tied with Kentucky for third — raising questions about whether another campus-wide outbreak is inevitable this year. Though cases have declined in Mississippi and Florida, the states still rank fifth and sixth in the nation, respectively.
SEC states don’t fare much better with vaccines. Mississippi and Alabama have the lowest rates in the country, at 38% and 39%, respectively. Louisiana, Arkansas, and Georgia also rank in the bottom 10.
The nationwide vaccination rate is 53%.
The SEC itself has tried to do its part. During media days this summer, Commissioner Greg Sankey implored football players to get vaccinated. It’s science, “not political football,” he said at the time.
Nick Saban appeared in a public service announcement in May urging Alabama residents to get vaccines. And the Alabama Department of Public Health announced an NIL deal with athletes across the state, where they’d get compensated for making videos encouraging fans to get vaccines.
We don’t really know how well SEC teams are able to protect themselves from the variant ripping through their communities. There’s been no official word on league-wide progress since Sankey announced in July that only six of 14 teams had more than 80% of athletes vaccinated.
A few teams have successful vaccination rates. On Aug. 18, Saban told ESPN that all but one player on the team had been vaccinated. LSU football announced a 99.1% vaccination rate on Aug. 24. Only one SEC school has touted a 100% vaccination rate among the football program: Ole Miss.
An SEC spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.