OU v Baylor Big 12 Championship

OU and Baylor warm up before the Sooners' game against Baylor, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, during the Big 12 Championship at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tx. (Kyle Phillips / The Transcript)

Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley and athletic director Joe Castiglione won’t need to defend their position about whether it’s safe for football players to return to campus by the first of June.

The Big 12 voted Friday to make June 15 the first day players may begin voluntary workouts on campus again. Castiglione and Riley had been vocal about waiting to bring players back, in response to several efforts to begin activities June 1.

Voluntary workouts will mark a quiet but significant return for collegiate sports in America after the coronavirus pandemic shut down NCAA competition March 12.

The move will allow more equipment access to players who might not have had it the past two months.

In addition to keeping college football on time for its season, midsummer workouts are the first opportunities for incoming freshmen or transfers who weren’t on campus in the spring to meet current players.

Baker Mayfield had this to say in 2017 about the first time he noticed what OU had in star receiver CeeDee Lamb, who was a freshman: “CeeDee, when he first stepped on the campus, it was during the workouts, and also with just the players — the voluntary, seven on seven stuff, him making plays just routinely.”

The workouts likely won’t come without school restrictions.

The Southeastern Conference voted Friday to allow athletes back at the discretion of each university beginning June 8. The league enacted guidelines about best practices for COVID-19 screening, testing, monitoring, tracing, social distancing and maintaining clean environments.

One of the SEC’s recommended measures includes a three-stage screening process that involves screening before athletes arrive on campus, within 72 hours of entering athletic facilities and on a daily basis once athletic activities resume.

Screening would differ from COVID-19 testing. The SEC’s guidelines suggest testing symptomatic team members only for the virus, followed by immediate isolation and contact tracing of those who test positive.

The Big 12 could enact similar guidelines, but didn’t immediately elaborate how schools should go about returning players. The amount of COVID-19 tests available for OU athletes and other Big 12 schools is unclear.

Big 12 athletes in other fall sports may begin voluntary workouts July 1. All other sports may resume voluntary activities July 15.

“This phased approach is intended to permit gradual adoption of best practices for mitigation of COVID-19 as well as ensuring a safe environment and appropriately prepared facilities,” the Big 12 stated in a release.

It was the latest in a busy week of developments focused on college sports’ return.

The debate over which schools can return when, and how, has ultimately been left up to conferences, which have given schools leeway to decide on their own. Virus infection rates are worse in some states than others.

Schools are likely to begin voluntary workouts at different times.

But getting back on campus is the first step toward what administrators hope can be a fall with as many sports as possible, if they’re deemed safe and allowed by local governments.

Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger reported that NCAA leaders are exploring a model with two weeks of NFL-style organized team activities, followed by four weeks of preseason camp.

Wednesday, the NCAA Division I Council voted to resume voluntary activities on June 1, an allowance that Riley had already expressed no interest in.

He called conferences’ attempts to return by that date “ridiculous” in a video conference with local reporters. Castiglione expressed similar feelings on KREF radio with Toby Rowland.

The Big 12’s announcement supports OU’s position, though Castiglione said he never felt pressured by the NCAA’s choice to make June 1 a suitable date.

“One could argue that there are advantages for getting the student athletes back on campus as soon as possible. But there are also risks,” Castiglione said. “And in our minds, as we consistently listen to the medical experts we’ve been talking about for weeks and weeks now, we don’t believe we’re at a point yet where the positives outweigh any of the risks. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. In our mind, the risks far outweigh any of the positive gains we might have for those few weeks. So we are not planning to have our student athletes back for the first part of June.”

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