Alcorn State canceled practice on Monday due to a lack of available trainers, and the same thing may happen on Tuesday. Ahead of a game against South Alabama this Saturday, it's possible the Braves may not practice at all during the week, and coaches are concerned about the safety of players.
Program sources told The Athletic early Monday about the situation, and head coach Fred McNair confirmed the news on his radio show Monday night, putting the blame on the athletic department administration. The Mississippi school does not have a full-time athletic trainer, and its part-time contracted trainers are unavailable due to COVID-19. This is a program that has won consecutive SWAC championships and four consecutive division titles.
"We've got a big game that's going to make the university money, and we can't go out and get treatment for the young men and women and not knowing what's going to happen tomorrow," McNair said. "This is something that needs to be fixed. This is an administration issue. I could talk about it until I turn blue. This needs to be fixed."
In a statement to WLBT in Mississippi, athletic director Derek Horne said, "The Alcorn State University athletic teams have modified their practice schedules because of a COVID-19 related issue. Throughout the pandemic, the health and safety of our student-athletes remain our top priority. Alcorn will continue to monitor and maintain compliance with CDC, Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH), and Institutions of Higher Learning guidelines, in addition to state and local regulations pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic."
But this is not a new problem. Alcorn State surprised many in February when it opted out of the spring 2021 season just weeks before games began. After all, this program has been the class of the SWAC. The school said it was due to COVID-19 concerns, but program sources said the team didn't want to play due to staffing issues. It didn't hire a new trainer until late January, and it didn't have a new head strength coach until the beginning of the semester.
"Our administration didn't shut (the season down), they were ready to go with no trainer or strength coach," one assistant coach told The Athletic. "We let the kids decide. They went to the AD and said they didn't feel comfortable with everything going on. Not once in that whole message was COVID brought up. We didn't have a trainer and stuff like that."
According to program sources, that new trainer, Fred Worthy, left for a job with Merit Health this summer. Instead of filling the position with a new full-time trainer, Alcorn State contracted Worthy and associates to fulfill the duties on a part-time basis. One source said the athletic department has lost several employees in recent years whose roles were filled by contractors. The department used to have a full-time trainer and graduate assistants. Now it's just contractors and undergraduate student trainers.
"This whole thing is becoming ridiculous," another assistant coach said. "It's really sad. This is the worst I've seen it."
(Photo: Ken Murray / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
When could trainers arrive?
Chris Vannini, college football staff writer: As of Monday night, coaches didn't know if they'd have a trainer on Tuesday, in which case they again wouldn't be able to practice. A trainer is scheduled to be there Wednesday, but a coming storm may wipe out the day, meaning the Braves might not practice all week.
On top of that, they play again next Thursday at Arkansas Pine-Bluff, meaning there's a short turnaround for the next game, too. Last week, the school used new contractor trainers that at least one coach had never seen before. That coach assumes the plan is the same for the South Alabama game.
What other issues have Alcorn State dealt with?
Vannini: Funding and support for Historically Black College and Universities has been an issue for a long time, but program sources feel the school is trying to get by on the cheap, and because it's won consecutive titles with little support, there's no reason to give it more.
This is a program that produced NFL players Steve McNair (Fred's brother) and Donald Driver. One coach noted a situation a few years ago when headsets didn't work for several games. Fred eventually complained publicly, and the problem was fixed. He hopes going public with this trainer issue will help the problem and help the players.
"I don't make excuses for this team. I try to find solutions. I try to find help," McNair said. "Somebody has to help. This is very discouraging. The players understand they can't function like this. This is really bad. It hurts as a coach to tell a young man they can't practice because they don't have this. We've been through this several times, and something has to be done about this."
Antonio Morales who used to be at the Clarion-Ledger, now works for The Athletic.