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Scott Rabalais: SEC vote to bring back student-athletes is a welcomed signpost for sports world

The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. — Scott Rabalais The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

May 23-- May 23--Our long national sports nightmare now, at least, has something resembling an expiration date.

The Southeastern Conference presidents and chancellors voted Friday, at a socially safe distance of course, to allow football and men's and women's basketball players to return to campus June 8.

Actually, according to LSU senior associate athletic director Robert Munson, they can start returning to campus before that for the all-important medical screenings, physicals, hauling mini-fridges and video games into their dorm rooms, stuff like that. The heavy lifting literally can begin June 8 as players, who have spent the past two months hoisting milk jugs back home or running here in Baton Rouge on the Mississippi River levee, can resume "voluntary activities."

They will all volunteer to be back. You can bet on that. LSU athletic director Scott Woodward said players have been "chomping at the bit" to return. And especially for college football's reigning national champions, now trying to uphold an incredibly high standard, there will be no half measures.

To be clear, what will start June 8 is not a revival of the spring practices cut short -- LSU got in only three sessions as coronavirus-related shutdowns fell like an iron curtain across the sports world -- but strength and conditioning workouts only. The level of conditioning for Tigers and Gators and Volunteers and Bulldogs around the SEC assuredly covers a wide waterfront.

And, as the SEC made clear in this long-awaited announcement, organized practices remain prohibited per NCAA edict. That said, on Wednesday the NCAA voted to allow student-athletes to return to campus June 1. Clearly the will to play sports this fall, that all-important first step, is there. The way forward is what remains a difficult path to chart.

There was apparently some divided thoughts among SEC schools as to when they should return. June 1, June 8 and June 15 were all on the table. So the conference collectively chose the middle path with the second Monday in June. Typically that's a date for fixating on the NCAA baseball tournament or the Women's College World Series. Now it will be all about young people getting themselves back into playing shape under what LSU referred to as "stringent protocols."

Still, it will be glorious. At least there is a starting point now fixed on the horizon. One of the worst things about this whole mess from a mental perspective has been the not knowing. No firm date to return to this. No firm date to reopen that. Finally, that has started to change. Getting dates and times on the calendar are reassuring signposts to tell us that yes, we will eventually awaken from this nightmare.

If the ultimate goal is to start the college football season on time, there is much work to be done and less time to do it in than is readily apparent. There are 89 days from the time the first weights will be lifted in the Tigers' weight room June 8 to the day foot is supposed to meet ball for the Sept. 5 season opener against Texas-San Antonio in Tiger Stadium. A lot of questions to answer, including:

--How will COVID-19 testing work for players, coaches and support personnel?

--How much special housing will be required?

--How will LSU, or any school, make sure the teams it is playing are also going through the proper protocols to stay virus-free?

--Assuming campuses reopen to regular students, what interaction, if any, do student-athletes have with them? How will the classroom, whatever that turns out to be, live in harmony with the meeting room?

--What happens when someone on or around a team inevitably tests positive for the coronavirus?

--Will fans be able to attend games and, if so, how many?

All those questions do not have be answered today. There is a little time for a breather for all concerned, and deservedly so. This was not a decision entered into lightly. School presidents, chancellors, athletic directors, coaches, and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and his staff, bear enormous responsibilities and liabilities as they try to move forward without much of a safety net. There is no past experience to fall back on, no textbook.

But there has been enough learning in dealing with this pandemic to move cautiously forward with an eye to restoring some semblance of normality in the sports world. No one is promising a college football season yet, or any sports season for that matter. But the prospect of them happening got a lot brighter Friday.

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