Can SEC boost country's vaccination rates?

When University of Mississippi head football coach Lane Kiffin announced that his team and staff was fully vaccinated against the coronavirus earlier this week, he punctuated the news by saying “it’s irresponsible not to” get vaccinated.

The notion of 240 players, coaches and support staff being fully vaccinated came in sharp contrast to the state of Mississippi’s role in the COVID-19 news cycle this week. On Monday, state officials bemoaned the lack of ICU beds due to the increasing number of COVID cases in the state. 

With Ole Miss emerging as a model for vaccination, Alabama coach Nick Saban remaining a staunch proponent of vaccination and even LSU’s live mascot, Mike The Tiger, getting vaccinated, programs in the Southeastern Conference are attempting to play a role in encouraging vaccination.

Those voices are amid an SEC footprint that remains among the least vaccinated in the country. Four of the five states with the lowest percentage of fully vaccinated people in the United States are within the SEC’s region – Alabama (35%), Mississippi (35.2%), Arkansas (37.7%) and Louisiana (37.7%)

Kiffin’s comments opened up an intriguing tension: Can the power of football in the South help boost lagging vaccination rates? The answer is ambiguous, as coaches and athletic officials are hopeful that athletes can set an example but acknowledge the issues run far outside the lines of the playing field.

 Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin wasn't shy in boasting about his team's vaccination rate against COVID-19. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin wasn't shy in boasting about his team's vaccination rate against COVID-19. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

“I do hope people will see what our athletes are doing as an example to be followed,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said in a phone interview with Yahoo Sports. “I hope they are following what our athletes are doing, setting a great example for the rest of our communities.

“SEC sports play a huge role in the cultural fabric of what we do. But so many people have politicized taking the vaccine. One thing you see often is people don’t want their sports and politics to mix.”

Saban was an early advocate for mask wearing. He did a video in May of 2020 with Alabama’s plush elephant mascot, Big Al, chiding him for not wearing a mask and social distancing. Saban’s mock scolding of Big Al went viral, as athletic director Greg Byrne said it was viewed by more than 4 million people on Alabama’s social media channels alone.

Saban, the most successful coach in the country, also did a public service announcement for vaccines earlier this spring. “Please get your COVID-19 vaccine,” Saban said in the PSA. “We want Bryant-Denny Stadium loud again this coming season.” 

Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne has also been vocal about vaccinations. “What we’ve tried to do is control what we can control,” he told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “That’s obviously educate and support student-athletes, coaches and staff. At the same time, too, share our opinion that we strongly believe in the vaccine within our community and fan base.”

Byrne said “more than 95%” of the Crimson Tide team has been vaccinated. As a department, just shy of 90% coaches, staff and total athletes have been vaccinated. “Any positive messaging and encouragement from people in leadership positions is important,” Byrne said.

Those Alabama athletic department numbers are a stark contrast to the community. Saban’s message hasn’t appeared to resonate locally, as 31.1% of the residents of Tuscaloosa County, where the school is located, are considered fully vaccinated. Lafayette County, where Ole Miss is located, has a 42.8% vaccination rate.

Will the sports teams make a difference?

Zach Binney, sports epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, appreciates the public gestures but remains skeptical. He commends Kiffin’s team and Saban’s message but is unsure they will translate significantly toward vaccinations. He said that studies find people are more likely to get vaccinated when someone close to them – a friend, relative or a pastor – gets the vaccine.

“It’s never a bad thing for something like [Ole Miss’ team] to happen and make a big public deal about it,” Binney said in a phone interview. “It certainly can’t hurt, but it’s probably not going to make a huge difference.”

It’s unlikely any schools in the SEC footprint will require proof of vaccination to attend a game. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey made an impassioned plea on Twitter this week for fans to get vaccinated, noting that “state policies limit the SEC’s ability to establish conference-wide mandates.”

He noted that the vaccination rates for teams are much higher than those in the general population. “We know nothing is perfect,” Sankey said on Twitter. “But the availability and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines is an incredible product of science, not a political football and we all need to do our part to support a healthy society. Like the SEC a year ago, will you now try with us to return toward normal?” (He declined further comment when reached Wednesday by Yahoo Sports.)

With the college football season about three weeks away, the rules on COVID-19 testing for leagues, mask regulations at venues and stadium capacity are due out soon. Byrne said one of the enduring lessons from 2020 was waiting as long as possible to make informed decisions, and that’s what Alabama plans to do with how it handles policies at its games.

Byrne noted that Alabama’s campus has an indoor mask mandate. “How that impacts football season right now is to be determined,” he said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done in the last year and a half. How we’ve handled our department and messaging about taking this seriously. And we continue to take it serious.”

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