American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco says league plans to play football this fall

American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco, shown addressing the media in July 2019, said medical professionals continue to contend it is safe to play college football this season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco, shown addressing the media in July 2019, said medical professionals continue to contend it is safe to play college football this season amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Brad Horrigan / Hartford Courant)

Navy fans waiting for the American Athletic Conference to issue a statement regarding the 2020 college football season should not hold their breath.

That’s because the AAC already made the decision to move forward with playing football this season and the only reason to issue a statement would be a change to that mindset.

“We’ve made a decision to continue moving forward contingent on any new information that would cause concern,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told The Capital in a telephone interview on Friday. “We continue to monitor the situation very closely while gathering information along the way. Our decision to play is subject to any new facts that might indicate it is not safe to do so.”

On Tuesday, the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences announced they would not compete in fall sports, including football, in 2020. On Wednesday, the Big 12 Conference announced it was moving forward with fall sports.

Subsequently, commissioners of the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences issued statements that essentially outlined a wait-and-see approach while member schools continue to prepare for a 2020 football campaign.

Presidents of the 11 football-playing schools in the American participated in a teleconference this week and supported the stance outlined by Aresco. On Wednesday, Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk sent an email to season ticket holders referencing that meeting.Paid Post 

“As of this day, the American Athletic Conference has reinforced an intent to play football this fall,” Gladchuk wrote. “Currently, we are joining the thinking and rationale of the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 conferences.”

“The plan includes a significantly reduced capacity in the stadium and a wide array of comprehensive social distancing and safety protocols,” Gladchuk added. “However, with the recent declarations of not to play by a number of other conferences at the Division I FBS level, our AAC presidents have decided to continue to study the landscape.”

Dr. Greg Stewart is the football team physician at Tulane University and is chairman of the American Athletic Conference advisory board. Upon learning of the Big Ten and Pac-12 decisions, Stewart immediate wondered about the rationale and the reasons.

“Is there something that they know that we don’t?” was the question Stewart asked during an interview with Sports Illustrated. “When someone in the Power 5 shuts down, I need to understand the why. If it’s something we haven’t thought about, then that’s important. It’s not a resource thing, so what is it?”

Aresco wondered the same and quickly convened the AAC medical advisory board to get answers. Specifically, the commissioner wanted to know if definitive medical information had emerged that made it clear playing football was too risky.

“We felt a decision like that would be premature,” Aresco said. “Our medical experts have continued to tell us it’s safer to play then not to play. They feel there is no compelling reason not to play.”

It was suggested by many in the national media that new concerns about the impact COVID-19 can have on internal organs, especially the heart, were a game-changer for Big Ten and Pac-12 officials. Foremost among the potential side effects was myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart muscle and is usually caused by a viral infection. A severe case can weaken the heart, which can lead to heart failure, abnormal heartbeat, and sudden death.

“Our medical people have looked closely at the myocarditis issue. In fact, they’ve been tracking it for months,” Aresco said. “Certainly, that is something we take very seriously. It’s not a common condition.”

Aresco quoted the response from the AAC chief epidemiologist.

“His exact words were the ‘vast, vast majority of people that would develop this condition would recover,‘” said Aresco, emphasizing the expert used the word “vast” twice. “Trust me, if our medical professionals told us it was not safe to play, we would not go forward.”

Aresco said the AAC medical advisory board has been conferring with colleagues from the Big Ten to Pac-12 to ascertain the reasons behind those two conferences choosing to shut down.

AAC officials are cautiously monitoring coronavirus testing results from all member schools. Houston suspended voluntary workouts on June 12 after at least six symptomatic football players tested positive. Other AAC schools announced positive tests early in the restart process, but Aresco said there have been no negative reports for weeks.

“Six of our 11 schools had zero positives. None of our schools have needed to shut down practice for a while,” he said. “We are staying on top of this. We’re not taking anything lightly. We want to play it by ear, we want to be deliberate, we want to be thoughtful and rational.”

Aresco noted that every AAC student-athlete can elect not to play at any point and keep their full scholarship. Some have, he said, “but the vast majority of our student-athletes want to play.”

Aresco was reluctant to criticize the NCAA, which has come under fire for a lack of leadership during the pandemic. He pointed out the NCAA no longer controls college football.

“I thought initially there might be broad NCAA guidelines regarding medical protocols,” Aresco said. “I realized early on that we were on our own and we needed to display leadership. That’s why I formed our own medical advisory board.”

Aresco reiterated a comment he’s made to other media outlets in the wake of this week’s events: “It’s easier to shut down than to try to push forward.”

“We need to have the courage of our convictions. I’m not concerned about optics, I’m concerned about doing the right thing,” he said.

Meantime, in his letter to “friends of Navy athletics,” Gladchuk could not provide clarity with regard to attendance at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for the Sept. 7 opener against BYU or any of the other four home games.

“I am confident we will know exactly what the fall will look like very shortly. If at that time we are allowed to move forward, you will have all the information you need to make an informed decision whether you will join us in the stands for our home games,” Gladchuk wrote.

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Bill Wagner has worked for Capital Gazette Newspapers for 30 years. He served as beat writer for Navy athletics and general assignment sports reporter. He is also the sailing editor.