Kolpack: SEC's fight on vaccination rates begs the question, can teams afford to have unvaccinated players?

SEC, Big 12 come out swinging but it remains to be seen if FCS leagues get just as tough on their programs.

North Dakota State fullback Hunter Luepke breaks away on a touchdown run against North Dakota during their football game Saturday, March 20, 2021, in the Fargodome. The Bison and Fighting Hawks open the Missouri Valley Football Conference season on Oct. 2 in Grand Forks. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service
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The commissioner of the Southeastern Conference came out Monday like an old rope-a-dope boxer trying to end a bout in the first round. A strong left jab. A solid right uppercut followed by an overhead to the face.

Greg Sankey pulled no punches. Get your team vaccinated or it may cost you. The SEC became the first Division I football conference to stipulate it will not postpone or cancel games this fall, saying not being able to play because of COVID-19 protocols will be considered a forfeit.

A forfeit, just to be clear, is a loss.

Sankey also seemingly scolded his league’s teams for the failure to reach the mandatory 80% vaccination rate that would protect a team from being tested. Of the 14 SEC teams, only six have reached that threshold.


“That number needs to grow and grow rapidly,” he said in his SEC preseason football media address.

In the last week, the Big 12 Conference has been inching toward matching Sankey’s plea. Kansas State athletic director Gene Taylor told the Kansas City Star that if a team isn’t allowed to play because of a coronavirus outbreak that it will be considered a forfeit. I did many stories on Taylor and any sort of athletic department policy when he was at North Dakota State and he’s not one to waffle.

The SEC is setting the standard and like all leaders, look for the followers to follow. Here’s the question at the Division I FCS level: will there be followers?

The Missouri Valley Football Conference has yet to finalize its COVID-19 policies for the fall, associate commissioner Mike Kern said on Monday, but commissioner Patty Viverito is expected to address it on July 27 at the league’s annual media day.

It will provide a window to see if the poor vaccination rate of league teams from mid-June have improved in the last four weeks. Viverito told The Forum last week those rates ranged from 25% to 70% among league teams.

It appears the Valley may mandate an 85% vaccination rate to prevent a team from being tested.

I’ll go one step farther: I’m not sure a team can afford to have unvaccinated players (see North Carolina State vs. the College World Series). The unvaccinated cost the Wolfpack a rare shot at a national baseball championship.


NDSU has 11 football games. The first Valley game is Oct. 2 at the University of North Dakota and from that point until the end of the regular season, there are no bye weeks. The last game is Nov. 20 at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome against the University of South Dakota.

The first round of the 24-team FCS playoffs is the following week.

In other words, there is no room to reschedule a game should some COVID-19 protocol hit a program. This isn’t baseball where a loss is not the hugest deal. In football, having wiggle room in making the playoff field is a precious commodity.

If a team is hovering around five to 10 players short of reaching a mandatory vaccination rate, and it is in playoff contention late in the season, can it afford to keep those five to 10 on the active roster?

The Big Sky Conference is expected to release its fall COVID-19 policy in the near future. With so many programs not reaching the 80 to 85% threshold, the best path to the FCS playoffs may be getting through a season without a forfeit.

That no contest stipulation last spring was a mess; leaving a massive grey-area hole in playoff selection.

Those days need to be over.

Sadly, as of Monday, they are not.


Sankey is on his bully pulpit. He filled his Twitter account on Monday promoting the vaccination.

“COVID-19 vaccines are widely available, proven to be highly effective and, when people are fully vaccinated,” he wrote, “we all have the ability to avoid serious health risks, reduce the virus’ spread and maximize our chances to experience college sports — and life — like we are accustomed.”

This summer has felt like a return to normal. The Red River Valley Fair and Fargo Street Fair were both packed. Concerts have returned. The USA Wrestling tournament is going on this week at the Fargodome and kids are running in sweats outside the dome to drop a couple pounds.

All is good. Until some team has to forfeit a game on a Friday leaving tailgaters and ticket-holding fans with nothing to do on Saturday.

Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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