How the Big 12 Conference and WVU are approaching vaccine education with student-athletes

WVU Football

After a year in college sports unlike any other, regular testing could still loom for athletes who don't receive the shot

ARLINGTON, Texas — As much of life returns to normal, including Big 12 Media Days, which returned to an in-person format this week, the leaders of the Big 12 Conference and member institutions remain locked in on player safety in the latter stages of the pandemic. 

After a year of competition filled with regular COVID-19 testing for student-athletes and multiple game cancellations, including one involving WVU football, conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby said the league could choose to enforce safety protocols again this season. 

Those protocols, though, haven’t been finalized and likely won’t be rolled out for several more weeks. But as Bowlsby and other administrators continue to monitor the delta variant and a rising number of virus hotspots in the country, he noted that the conference is “probably not quite done with” regular testing of athletes and other protocols. 

“If we’ve learned anything, it’s to be patient,” Bowlsby said. “Frankly, we’re not excited about having to have protocols, but we’re not unprepared.” 

Bowlsby later indicated that unvaccinated student-athletes are the ones who could be subject to regular testing when competition resumes. He added that the conference has “great interest” in getting athletes and coaches vaccinated, but it won’t mandate it. 

“We certainly are going to do everything we can to encourage vaccination,” Bowlsby said. “I think it’s very short-sighted to not get vaccinations. Even if the delta variant weren’t around, it makes sense to get vaccinated.” 

WVU coach Neal Brown shared his approach to vaccine education on Wednesday. He noted that he has received the vaccine, as have several members of his family. The program’s medical team, though, has been charged with leading the vaccine discussion with student-athletes.

“We have a high percentage that are vaccinated within our staff. We’ve got a high percentage within our team, but we’re not 100,” Brown said. “We’ll continue to educate, but we’re not gonna push.” 

Currently, WVU is not requiring students to receive the vaccine before returning to campus for the fall semester. 

Then there is the element of fans returning to venues across the conference. WVU is one of the schools that intends to return to full capacity for all sporting events beginning in August. 

Bowlsby said the league wants to return to “some semblance of normalcy” when it comes to fan attendance, and medical professionals have advised the conference that it is safe to do so this fall. But if circumstances change between now and the opening kickoff of the new season, the Big 12 could intervene and require some or all schools to restrict attendance again. 

“In the end, these kinds of decisions have always been made on a local basis, local health officials, in some cases governors’ offices,” Bowlsby said. “But if we get to a point where public assembly is ill-advised because of a spike in the variant, it’s not inconceivable we would go back and try and revisit those things on an institutional basis or collectively.” 

Bowlsby also noted that the conference distributed about $35 million to member programs for the 2020-21 academic year, roughly $4.5 million less than forecasted amid the pandemic. He added that universities that lost substantial ticket revenue could feel a “longer term hangover” that extends into 2023. 

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