SEC schools that break COVID-19 protocols can be fined up to $1 million

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Friday that conference schools can face a cumulative penalty of $1 million as the league continues to enforce COVID-19 sideline protocols and hold head coaches accountable for wearing masks during games.

While Sankey acknowledged that some teams have done well in complying with sideline protocols during games, he compared the overall response to a report card marked "Needs improvement." Multiple SEC schools have already violated the mask-wearing rule and will lose money from their conference revenue distribution, sources told ESPN.

The first offense is $100,000, followed by $200,000, $300,000 and $400,000 for a fourth violation. Sankey said he has focused on "head coaching compliance," but declined to say which schools have already been fined and how much.

"My premise is, our head football coaches are leaders, the most visible people in their programs," he said. "They set the tone. They have that responsibility in this environment."

Sankey said his conversations about this have been with the athletic directors -- not the coaches -- because the campus athletic departments accepted the responsibility for enacting the protocols. Sankey said he is in his third week of "writing memos" to remind each athletic director of the importance of enforcing the protocols.

"First week was, 'After Week 1, there seems to be some misunderstanding, here's a memo of clarification,'" Sankey said. "'Make sure this is widely circulated and everyone understands their responsibility for wearing masks.' The second week was less friendly, with the clarification that accountability can include fines, removal from the sidelines or suspensions. We will impose financial assessments to athletics departments, withholding from conference revenues."

The SEC office has a handful of employees who comb through the broadcast videos each week to monitor the sideline protocols.

"When the coach is on camera, is the mask on? Yes or no? Pretty objective standard," said Sankey, who typically stays in his conference office on Saturdays to watch games, and has reported five negative tests to do that. "Is there any social distancing involved, which to a certain extent can mitigate not wearing a mask, but the mask-wearing expectation is clear.

"In circumstances where the majority of time the head coach is not wearing the mask," he said, "that's where accountability will be applied."

In addition to focusing on the sidelines during televised games, the SEC office has also been paying attention to camera angles showing fans -- some of which can be deceiving, Sankey said, because they often don't show the entire stadium.

Still, he conceded some images of fans in close groups have raised concerns.

"The second week we had some student sections that were just too close together, third week the same," Sankey said. "Each of those weeks we tried to figure out how to provide reminders, clarifications, and one of the questions is, 'Should we be more aggressive from the conference office?' Conference offices don't regulate fan attendance, typically. That's why we, right up front, said it's campus decision-making, local decision-making, state decision-making. Here are some expectations. The question is, what do we have to do to make sure each of our programs is fully engaged in managing those expectations properly? That question comes from the scenes on TV that raise concerns, and rightly so."

It has been a turbulent week for the SEC, as two games -- Vanderbilt vs. Missouri and LSU vs. Florida -- were postponed because of coronavirus outbreaks. Alabama coach Nick Saban and athletic director Greg Byrne announced Wednesday that they had tested positive for the coronavirus.

"There's a lot that goes on in this world right now, so I think I'm through the point of being surprised," he said when asked specifically about Saban. "I had a hurricane last week in the middle of a pandemic. This week I had two games that are postponed. So there's a lot of news that merits reaction, so the answer is no, other than it's 2020."