Big 12 commish: 'Anyone not getting vaccinated is taking unnecessary and unwarranted risks'

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How many college football games will be canceled due to COVID-19 in 2021?

After dozens of games were canceled in 2020, college athletics administrators don't want to have to cancel games again in 2021. That group includes Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby.

Bowlsby strongly encouraged vaccinations while at Big 12 football media days on Wednesday. Bowlsby cited the spreading Delta variant of the coronavirus as a big reason why vaccinations are necessary for public health reasons — and for sports to happen without the severe restrictions that were in place in 2020. The Big 12 had two football games canceled in the final week of the regular season in 2020.

"We are certainly — as we go forward — encouraging student-athletes to get vaccinated, and in doing that, to minimize the impact that the Delta variant will have on our activities," Bowlsby said Wednesday. "Frankly, anyone not getting vaccinated is taking unnecessary and unwarranted risks. And that's not just student-athletes; that's anybody in our society. I think the Delta variant may, indeed, be a blessing for us because it punctuates the fact that we're not done with this yet."

Vaccinations are the way to stop the spread of the coronavirus and the Delta variant is spreading rapidly in places where vaccination rates are the lowest. Data has shown that nearly all of those hospitalized in recent weeks due to COVID-19 infections are not fully vaccinated. To put it bluntly, getting vaccinated can keep coronavirus from spreading and keep yourself out of the hospital.

Vaccines not mandated by conference

Bowlsby said that athletes in the Big 12 won't be mandated to get vaccinated for their upcoming seasons unless they play for a school that requires all students to get vaccinated. He called the refusal to get vaccinated a "short-sighted" decision. Outside of the health reasons for getting vaccinated, unvaccinated players will be required to be tested far more frequently for COVID-19.

"We certainly are going to do everything we can to encourage vaccination," Bowlsby said. "I think it's very short-sighted to not get vaccinations. Even if the Delta variant weren't around, it makes sense to get vaccinated."

"I think it's early in the year. It's early in the process. We have always thought that viruses were more prevalent during late fall and through the winter. And so, you know, if indeed the Delta variant is as virulent and as infectious as it's been reported to be, not getting vaccinated, you're rolling the dice in terms of whether you'll contract the virus.

"And beyond that, for a student-athlete, you're also rolling the dice on whether or not you're going to be able to participate because you're going to be in a testing protocol if you're not vaccinated."

One way of encouraging vaccinations would be to change the rules that were in place for canceled games in 2021. The two games that weren't played in the Big 12 last season — Oklahoma vs. West Virginia and Kansas vs. Texas — were declared no contests. According to Kansas State athletic director Gene Taylor, forfeits could become possibilities in 2021 if a team can't field enough players to play. 

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Full stadiums in the fall?

Schools across the country have been planning for full stadiums in 2021 since vaccines became widespread this spring. But Bowlsby made it clear on Wednesday that those plans aren't ironclad in the Big 12. While schools may be selling tickets in anticipation of a return to full-capacity crowds on Saturday, moves could be made to limit attendance if COVID-19 continues to spread through the late summer and fall. 

"In the end, these kinds of decisions have always been made on a local basis, local health officials, in some cases governors' offices," Bowlsby said. "But if we get to a point where public assembly is ill-advised because of a spike in the variant, it's not inconceivable we would go back and try and revisit those things on an institutional basis or collectively. I think it's entirely possible and it's exactly that sort of occurrence that we're trying to anticipate and make sure that when the middle of August comes around, if we find that we've got nine miles of bad road in front of us, that we can make an informed decision."

"But do we want to return to some semblance of normalcy? Yes, we do. Do we think that it could be done safely? Yeah, I think health professionals that are advising us believe that it could be done safely. Whether or not the circumstances will worsen is yet to be seen."

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