Editor's note: This is the second of a five-part series previewing the football season for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Jackson State University's Deion Sanders, arguably the most visible and popular coach in Black college football, said at Tuesday's SWAC Media Day that it's not a matter of his persuading players to get vaccinated.
"Freedom of choice is real," said the Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback, who's going into his second season with the Tigers. "You just give them the possibilities and understand what are the benefits and what are the repercussions."
Sanders said "quite a few" of his players are vaccinated, but he did not offer a specific number. He added that the players are not "forced" to get vaccinated.
But there's no arguing how Sanders wants the Tigers to handle the matter.
"I just want the kids to be truly understanding of what's at hand," Sanders said. "I just want them to approach the vaccine like they approach their sex life. Print that. Read between those lines."
All things considered, the upcoming fall season will be the moment of truth for Southwestern Athletic Conference teams.
Many, if not all, of the teams lost at least one game because of covid-19 issues of their own or of their scheduled opponents, and some games that had been rescheduled as makeups were also called off.
This time, there is no makeup.
SWAC Commissioner Charles McClelland said any team that doesn't play a scheduled conference game will face game forfeiture and a possible fine. In addition, the next game scheduled between the two teams will be held at the home site of the non-forfeiting team, meaning a loss of a home game for the forfeiting team.
"If you have not been vaccinated, you're going to have to go through covid testing protocols, testing through the week and testing the day of the game," McClelland said. "If you test positive, you'll have to quarantine for 14 days. Get vaccinated because if you don't, you're not going to go through the season, and somebody could take your spot. It could be a detriment to the team."
NOT AN ULTIMATUM
The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff went through the regular season undefeated with one cancellation, a home game against Texas Southern University that was scheduled as the season opener and rescheduled for the finale, only to be canceled due to positive covid-19 tests and quarantines within Texas Southern's program. But when Alabama A&M University's April 24 game at Mississippi Valley State University was called off due to the latter's covid-19 issues, the conference scheduled a neutral-site championship game, saying it could not determine whether Alabama A&M or UAPB had an advantage under its tiebreaker policy.
Alabama A&M won the title game 40-33 on May 1 in Jackson, Miss.
Other leagues, including the Southeastern Conference, are implementing no-makeup policies similar to the SWAC's. The Big Ten had a no-makeup edict after a late start to the 2020 season.
"Studies have shown that vaccinations are the best way to go right now, so we need to do that," UAPB Coach Doc Gamble said, echoing his support for the SWAC's rules. "There's a lot of studies out there. A lot of times, not getting the vaccination is because of the unknown. Well, a lot of studies have shown this is the best way to prevent you of catching covid and then the delta variant. It's the best way to protect you, and we want our guys to protect themselves, and they plan on doing that."
UAPB Athletic Director Chris Robinson said last month that vaccination for the school's athletes is not mandated but is highly encouraged.
Texas Southern Coach Clarence McKinney, whose team played only two games, voiced his support for vaccinations toward the end of the spring season but said he doesn't require them.
"At the moment, we don't have a policy, per se, but we're encouraging our guys to get vaccinated," McKinney said Tuesday. "We're encouraging them daily, and we've upped our testing policy to encourage those guys that if you get fully vaccinated, you don't have to get tested. We want to get 80%, and right now, I think we're at 50%."
Three SWAC teams did not play during the 2020-21 school year. Alcorn State University's players voted before the spring season not to play and drew the support of their coaches, and officials at new SWAC members Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M universities dropped their schedules during the fall while still members of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
LOVE FROM ESPN
ESPN is taking its relationship with the SWAC another step forward.
McClelland announced the network will broadcast "College GameDay" from the site of the MEAC/SWAC Challenge, Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta, on Aug. 28. Alcorn State will represent the SWAC in the game against North Carolina Central University of the MEAC.
"College GameDay," which has been ESPN's pregame college football show since the 1987 season, is hosted by Rece Davis, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard, Maria Taylor and David Pollack.
ESPN, which will telecast the game in prime time, renewed its contract with the MEAC and SWAC in May for six more years. The package includes the SWAC championship game and Celebration Bowl, which pits the SWAC and MEAC champions against each other for the Division I Black college national championship.
Alabama A&M quarterback Aqeel Glass revealed his personal logo, a design of the letter-number combination AQ4, on social media in the days since leading the Bulldogs to the SWAC championship.
"I've had that logo since 2019," the senior and reigning SWAC Offensive Player of the Year said. "I felt like I was ahead of schedule on that."
Glass can use that brand to endorse products and services permissible within his school's policy governing athletes' use of their names, images and likenesses, or NIL. The school's athletes are banned from using the school's logo for endorsements.
"As far as that, I think it's a great opportunity," Glass said. "But now, I've got to focus on the main thing because without football, none of [the opportunities] will come. I mean, nobody wants to represent the third-string kicker, so you've got to be out there, be ready to play and make plays."
Alabama's law on allowing college athletes to cash in on their identities went into effect July 1. Arkansas' law will be enacted Jan. 1, but it doesn't mean UAPB or other athletes within the state can't commit to endorsements.
"We do have an NIL policy, but we're constantly monitoring what's going on," UAPB's Robinson said. "We have some parameters in place, just to make sure ... basically looking out for them. A lot of people are still approaching them with opportunities, and so we're just monitoring that process and we're not fully going in until we're legally allowed to do so."
Robinson said he has not been able to measure how many of his student-athletes have drawn NIL offers.
UAPB officials cannot be involved in NIL practices until Arkansas' law is in effect, Robinson said. But he added that UAPB athletes at the moment cannot use the school's name or likeness when promoting.
"We can support them better in January," Robinson said, adding that the campus-imagery prohibition may be lifted then. "The main goal is, as we know this is a new program and new opportunity, we want to do what's best for the student-athletes. If it's a good opportunity, we want to support that. But if it's not, or anything that's detrimental, we want to make sure we help negate that as well."