TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday continued to pitch the return of college and high-school sports as a safer environment for student-athletes amid the coronavirus pandemic.
During an appearance at Florida State University with football players and President John Thrasher, DeSantis also said the state would welcome athletes from schools in other states and conferences not planning to play this fall.
“We want to make sure that folks know that we value the opportunities for our student-athletes in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said.
“I asked President Thrasher and (FSU football coach Mike Norvell) about, hey, if some of these other conferences shut down, can we welcome their players to the state of Florida?” DeSantis continued. “I’m not exactly sure how the NCAA rules work on that. But I can tell you, if there’s a way, you know, we want you guys to be able to play as well.”
DeSantis’ news conference came as the Big Ten Conference and the Pac-12 Conference on Tuesday called off all fall sports, including football, because of health and safety concerns related to the pandemic. The Big Ten and Pac-12 were first two major athletic conferences to take the step, though smaller conference also have called off fall seasons.
“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a prepared statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott also pointed to challenges in keeping student-athletes from getting exposed to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
“Unlike professional sports, college sports cannot operate in a bubble,” Scott said in a statement. “Our athletic programs are a part of broader campuses in communities where in many cases the prevalence of COVID-19 is significant. We will continue to monitor the situation and when conditions change we will be ready to explore all options to play the impacted sports in the new calendar year.”
DeSantis, who played baseball at Yale University, has said athletes will be safer when involved in team activities than if they have free time that could lead to getting exposed to the virus. He also has touted athletics as a way to provide “structure” for students and has repeatedly focused during recent public appearances on having college and high-school sports this fall.
“That means the world to so many of our student-athletes,” DeSantis said. “We talked about some of the college players who may not necessarily be (going) pro. There’s a lot of high school players who may not be able to get to college on it, but man, that’s an important part of their development.”
The focus on sports comes amid broader debate about reopening public schools and university campuses this month because of COVID-19.
Florida became a hotspot for the virus this summer, with 276 deaths of state residents reported Tuesday. In all, 8,553 Floridians have died of COVID-19, with more than 80 percent of them age 65 or older.
The state also reported 5,831 new cases Tuesday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 542,792. In July, the state averaged more than 10,000 new cases a day.
DeSantis has been joined by other Republican leaders in backing the resumption of sports. His appearance Tuesday at FSU’s Albert J. Dunlap Athletic Training Facility came a day after President Donald Trump tweeted “Play college football!” Also, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis wrote a letter to every university president in the state urging them to support fall football.
Thrasher said DeSantis’ support is important as talks continue with presidents of other colleges on moving forward with the football season.
“What we frankly want to send is a message to some of the other schools that may be teetering on whether or not to play football,” Thrasher said. “We think it’s in the best interest of our student-athletes for us to play football. We can do it safely. And we can do it productively for them, as well as the absolute culture of our university. And certainly, this community of Tallahassee. We’re ready to do it.”
Thrasher, Novell and Athletic Director David Coburn said the school has safety protocols in place for student-athletes, from daily temperature and symptom checks to the use of a residence hall as a quarantine zone.
“They’re socially distancing their meetings, they’re required to wear masks throughout the building and on the way to and from practice,” Coburn said. “We’re testing weekly now, and we will probably go to bi-weekly testing during the season.”
Players invited to take part in Tuesday’s events backed up the arguments of DeSantis, Norvell and the administrators.
“If you talk about 18- to 22-year-olds just quarantining at their house, that’s unrealistic. It’s unrealistic,” said Keyshawn Helton, a junior wide receiver from Pensacola. “There are so many other things that guys are going to go do that are not safe. So, being here with my team and all together, it’s the safest for us.”
The school, which is part of the Atlantic Coast Conference, has kept the number of positive COVID-19 cases under wraps through the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which prohibits confirmation or disclosure of student COVID-19 test results.
Asked after the event about the potential economic impact of not playing football in the fall, Thrasher said it would be “significant.”
“Football drives everything else,” Thrasher said. “When you have football, you’re able to support the other sports, the Olympic sports and everything else.”
Coburn estimated football accounts for 75 percent of the athletic department’s revenue.