The Southwestern Athletic Conference is preparing to start its football season on Labor Day weekend but also has a contingency plan to begin as late as Oct. 17 -- or cancel fall sports entirely -- if the coronavirus pandemic remains a threat, commissioner Charles McClelland told ESPN on Friday.
"Anything after the third week in October, we have decided that's our drop-dead date, that we wouldn't have sports, and possibly look at the spring, but the spring would take some NCAA legislation," he said.
The SWAC and MEAC have three more weeks of flexibility in their fall football calendars because they participate in the Celebration Bowl, which honors the legacy and traditions of HBCUs, instead of the FCS championship.
McClelland said the schools in his conference, which spans across some states that have recently seen an uptick in reported positive cases, won't start bringing student-athletes back onto campuses until July 6 to prepare for the NCAA-approved six-week acclimation period. He said the return plans and testing protocols have been left to each individual school but that he remains "extremely concerned" about the possible implications of the coronavirus.
"If this thing doesn't die down, I think you're probably going to start to see closer to July and on into August more and more conversation about postponement and pushing the season back," he said of his own conference. "Spring is something that I don't think has a lot of momentum within the membership, but if this virus continues to do what it's doing on into August and September, I think you're going to see another look at where we are and where we need to be.
"There's time to plan, and there's time to pull back if there needs to be some pull-back," he said. "We're planning to start, but we're cautiously planning to start. If this virus is continuing to decimate the population, we're not going to be in a position we're going to put people out. We have the right to slow it down or stop it. We're just planning to ensure we will be ready if that time comes."
The SWAC, located in the heart of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, has led all FCS conferences in attendance for 42 of the past 43 seasons. Jackson State led all of the FCS with more than 30,000 people per game. The highest seed hosts the conference championship game and keeps the revenue. McClelland said institutions will put together a plan on social distancing in the stadiums but are still including their bands, which have historically been a significant part of the league's identity.
"Attendance is going to be significantly reduced," McClelland said. "That's one of our biggest assets within the Southwestern Athletic Conference. We play in front of packed stands, packed crowds."
McClelland said there would be a wide-ranging impact on the member schools if fall sports weren't played.
"At our level, we do not make money through the wonderful world of athletics," McClelland said. "It's supplemented by game guarantees, tickets, student fees and institutional support. Not having those teams travel, all of the expenses that go into putting on the games, there will be some savings there. Some schools could possibly make it. Others it would be a significant hit."
All of the schools in the SWAC will be open for the fall, so the student-athletes will be returning regardless.
"Our dilemma is to make sure we do not exacerbate our exposure to the coronavirus through athletics," McClelland said. " ... We're hoping that our plans with contact tracing and testing and isolation, all of those things will allow us to participate in intercollegiate athletics."
While the athletes throughout the league have expressed an eagerness to return, and there are finances at stake, McClelland said he doesn't feel pressure to have a football season.
"We don't," he said. "The pressures at the FCS level will be different than the pressures at the FBS level. Their margin is way higher than ours. Their television contracts are way higher than ours. There's going to be different pressures at our level. At our level, we have the least amount of pressure from external forces, and we have a great propensity to do what's best for our constituency without having the influences of corporate sponsors and television contracts and things of that nature."