As the coronavirus pandemic continues across the globe, the topic of vaccinations dominated conversation on Wednesday at the ACC’s Football Kickoff event. New conference commissioner Jim Phillips, athletic directors, coaches, and players were all asked about vaccinations and how they can impact the upcoming season.
According to CBS Sports, 139 NCAA football games were postponed or canceled in the 2020 season as a result of the coronavirus, and Virginia was not spared. The Cavaliers had two games — Virginia Tech and Louisville — rescheduled due to the pandemic and one game — Florida State — canceled. Now that the vaccine is widely available, it stands to reason that there should be fewer cancelations and postponements as infection rates and necessity for testing and contact tracing decline.
The rules around vaccinations and whether or not they are required will be left up to each ACC school individually and not mandated by the conference. “As it relates to vaccines and any policies or mandates, those decisions will remain at the discretion of each member institution,” Phillips stated. “Personally, I believe that vaccinations are critical to the protection of all and helping to achieve the goal of eliminating the COVID-19 virus and its variants. But I also deeply respect that getting vaccinated is a personal choice.”
Heading into the season, it’s not yet clear what the result will be if a team has a COVID outbreak or multiple athletes placed into contact tracing. It is becoming a situation where not being vaccinated could not only mean illness and long-lasting side effects, it could also prove to be a competitive disadvantage for teams. In late June, the NC State baseball team was unable to keep competing in the College World Series because of players testing positive for the virus and others being eliminated due to contact tracing. Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich isn’t attending the Pac-12’s media day because he’s not vaccinated and does not plan to be.
Phillips told media members gathered in Charlotte that the conference has not decided if teams will forfeit for a COVID-caused cancellation, but there are not extra days built into the schedule to accommodate a lot of changes.
“As recently as yesterday, our athletic directors discussed the necessary protocols regarding scenarios when a team may be able to participate in a contest — may be unable to participate in a contest due to COVID-19 infections or contact tracing and what that contest would be considered by the conference,” Phillips said in his opening remarks Wednesday morning. “Similar to the updated medical advisory group report, we’ll have a decision in the near future.”
For Virginia, head coach Bronco Mendenhall and AD Carla Williams are hoping to put the struggles of last season behind them. According to Williams, the Cavaliers have a 90% vaccination rate among student-athletes.
“The University of Virginia has a unique policy. I’m not sure how widespread it is. All students are required to be vaccinated before they come back to Charlottesville. There are possibly two exemptions,” Mendenhall said from the podium in Charlotte. “Medical exemption is possibly one of them, religious exemption is the other. We don’t make those decisions, the University does.
“Every player on my team has 100% been vaccinated or been granted the exemption at this point.”
Within the conference, only five other schools — Virginia Tech, Duke, Wake Forest, Syracuse and Boston College — have a vaccine mandate like Virginia. The remaining eight football programs don’t have any sort of requirement, but Phillips stated that the majority of the ACC have hit the 85% vaccinated target. “We have over half of our group above that 85% threshold with several others on the cusp,” he said. “We all feel like that’s a reasonable target across the ACC.”
Virginia announced May 28 that they will be back to 100% capacity next season, but with the Delta variant causing surges around the country, it’s still unclear if this fall will be back to “normal.”