By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATLANTA (AP) — As he prepares to welcome his players back to campus, Georgia coach Kirby Smart insisted Thursday that they’ll be safer working out under the school’s supervision than on their own.
Smart also called on fans to comply with guidelines for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, warning that a spike in cases could ruin any hopes of playing football in the fall.
“The longer this thing has gone on, the more people begin to relax and say, ‘Well, this won’t affect me,’” Smart said from Athens during a video call with reporters. “The last thing we need right now, if people want to have a football season or any athletic season, is to have another flare-up.”
The Southeastern Conference voted last week to reopen athletic facilities for voluntary workouts beginning June 8, lifting a ban that had been in effect since the sports world shut down in March.
Smart said no one will be forced to return to campus if they don’t feel safe.
“There’s obviously some apprehension and questions, but they have those same questions whether they are in Huntsville or in Macon or in Columbus,” he said. “I know that our facility is one of the safest, and we certainly have the ability to care for that facility better than a lot of places they can go back home.”
Smart pointed to a rigid protocol set up the Georgia’s longtime director of sports medicine, Ron Courson, one of the nation’s most respected athletic trainers. The Bulldogs will work in small groups, giving them plenty of room to spread out in the school’s spacious weight room.
A cleaning crew will go through the facility after each session. The locker rooms will not be used.
“They’ll work out in smaller groups than traditionally before, probably 20 or so guys to a group, and of the 20 that come in, they’ll be subdivided into groups of seven,” Smart said. “So you’re looking at a seven-person rotation in a 1,200-square-foot weight room and they’ll be spaced out.”
Also, Georgia is planning to test and give a full medical screening to every player.
“It’s not going to be the normal,” Smart said. “It’s going to be completely different.”
While the workouts are supposedly on a voluntary basis, many have scoffed at the notion that a player competing for a starting job would not return to campus because of health or safety concerns.
“There is no pressure,” Smart said. “But if you ask these players, every one of them, to a man, is going to tell you they’ve been working out at home. I would argue that the home environment — whether that’s a local gym or the local high school or their backyard, anywhere they’re working out — is not more safe than one that is professionally cleaned and monitored and taken care of by our staff.
“As a parent, I would certainly feel much better about my son or daughter going to work in that environment than where they’re working out currently.”
If a player does test positive, he will have the choice of returning home or being quarantined on campus. Contact tracing will allow the school to determine if anyone else has been infected, Smart said.
“We are not looking really far out of what is going to happen in the season,” the coach added. “We are looking at June and the immediate issues there.”
Smart declined to say whether he thinks the season actually will be played, or how it might look. NASCAR has resumed racing without fans in the stands, a model that nearly every other sport seems resigned to follow.
“We’ve got three months,” Smart said. “I’m very optimistic we’ll have fans in the stands, but to what extent, I have no clue and I don’t really want to speculate.”
Georgia will ensure that players are aware of safety guidelines such as masks and social distancing, which help to limit the coronavirus from spreading.
“We’re going to educate our players, because I promise you, there are some of our players that don’t feel vulnerable,” Smart said. “They feel like they’re not vulnerable because of what they’ve heard, or because they think they have superpowers.
“We’re going to have education sessions, even when they get back, to give us the best opportunity to have a season.”