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A talk with Gov. Brian Kemp

“Look, I’m optimistic, and I want to see it happen. But you can’t guarantee that yet. I don’t know what that will look like. I said recently I don’t know if that looks like a capacity crowd on Labor Day night or no fans at all. I think we’ve got to wait and see.”
— Gov. Brian Kemp when asked about the likelihood of fans in the stands
Kirby Smart has been in conversations with Georgia Governor Brian Kemp.
Kirby Smart has been in conversations with Georgia Governor Brian Kemp.

The SEC announced Friday that the league’s football programs would be allowed to hold voluntary workouts beginning June 8, to initiate preparation for the 2020 campaign. This was welcome news to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.

In an exclusive telephone interview with UGASports, Kemp went in-depth. He offered his thoughts about the return of college football, including how his office intends to help in-state teams, and whether or not he feels fans will be part of the equation when Georgia is scheduled to kick off its season Sept. 7 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against Virginia.

Concerning the SEC’s decision, Kemp said it was the right call to allow initial workouts to begin. Schools and programs were shut down last month due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it’s great. Look, everybody wants to have college football; I’m one of them,” said Kemp, a Georgia graduate and a huge Bulldog fan. “How it looks, what it looks like, I don’t think anybody is too sure yet. But I do think the leagues—the SEC, major league baseball, the Falcons, and others—have really been very prudent in how they’re bringing folks back to do it in a safe way. It’s just what we’ve got to do.

“We can’t keep living in a shelter-in-place state, economically or from a mental health standpoint. People need outlets,” Kemp added. “Certainly sports, especially in the Southeast, is one of them, so I’m very supportive of that. But I’m also very confident. One of the things I’ve been doing is making reasonable, measured decisions, but also trusting people to be innovative and to be able to deal with this. I feel like the SEC is doing that.”

Despite concerns regarding a second wave of the coronavirus, Kemp is optimistic that the season will start on time.

“Yeah, look. Depending on how this thing plays out, and whether there’s going to be a second wave or not—there are arguments that can be made that the season should start on time; that, really, late in the season would create more complications than earlier in the season,” Kemp said. “I wouldn’t say that that’s a fact, but there are a lot of opinions out there, and that’s certainly one of them.”

State standing by ready to help

Kemp said his office will be willing to lend schools whatever support they desire as coaches and players navigate the new normal, once they return to campus.

Georgia officials have yet to publicly announce any specific plans, but teams are being expected to follow any and all state guidelines when it comes to social distancing and public health.

“First of all, just asking if there’s anything they need from us. We’ve been very involved, obviously, with many different sectors of the economy in different business segments—trying to help them with guidelines, looking at the guidelines, or maybe giving them suggestions or if there are other things that they need from us, we’ll certainly have conversations,” Kemp said. “The good thing is, an organization like the SEC—they’re going to have just as many experts, probably more of them in some cases, than we have, to figure these things out.”

Kemp said he’ll continue to personally reach out to any and all sports organizations in the state, including Augusta National, following its decision to move The Masters to Nov. 12-15.

“I’ve been in conversations with Augusta National. They were trying to determine when to hold the tournament, and when to move it. And we’ll certainly be there to help them any way we can when November rolls around,” Kemp said. “I’ve spoken to all the major professional sports leagues in Atlanta; we’ve certainly been in contact with others, our public schools and independent schools across the state, and we’ll continue to do that.”

Positive tests to be handled accordingly 

Although Georgia plans on testing all its athletes and coaches, what happens if there is a positive one?

Kemp acknowledged that’s a good question.

“That’s definitely part of the puzzle, because you’re probably going to have that happen at some point,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any different than the public; it’s just to make sure you have the ability to find that out as quickly as possible—figure out who that individual has been around, and then how do you deal with the contact tracing from a public health standpoint, to make sure you’re keeping that isolated?

“That’s what we’re trying to do with all of society. In some ways, it will be a lot easier to do that with a student athlete than it would for the general public, in some cases.”

Georgia typically houses its football players at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education hotel during camp, and is slated to do so again.

Kemp said he’s spoken with Georgia president Jere Morehead and head coach Kirby Smart and that their talks went well.

“Really, they (the meetings) were just kind of high level, kind of to get their take on things, as we continue to make decisions to re-open our economy,” Kemp said. “We’ve been taking real, measured steps. I know I’ve seen a lot of discussion they’re having. I just wanted to make sure I knew what their mindset was, and offer my assistance, and make sure they’re keeping us posted on what their thoughts are, so we can try and be supportive in that vein. But also, if there was anything that was concerning, we could let them know that, too.

“They were great conversations.”

Kemp optimistic, but no guarantees about fans in the stands

Of course, the big question remains: Assuming games do start on time, will there be fans in the stands? If so, how many?

Opinions have varied, and right now, Kemp simply is not sure.

“Look, I’m optimistic, and I want to see it happen. But you can’t guarantee that yet. I don’t know what that will look like. I said recently I don’t know if that looks like a capacity crowd on Labor Day night or no fans at all. I think we’ve got to wait and see," Kemp said. "The data continue to move in the right direction, and there’s a lot of smart, innovative people looking at what the stadium is going to look like, what the game day experience would look like, what campus that day is going to look like; if it’s a home game or one at (Mercedes-Benz). I think there’s a lot to work out there, but I’m definitely optimistic.”

The Governor has his fingers crossed.

“Look, it would be great for that to happen,” he said. “It’s a big part of our economy, but it’s also a big part of our culture, and we’ve got to learn how to deal with this virus.”

Although state guidelines will ultimately dictate what is and what is not allowed, Kemp indicated he’s willing to give schools as much leeway as he can.

“We will be a part of it. Obviously, they’ll have to follow the orders that are in place at the time, but we’re trying to allow people who are creative and innovative ways to keep people safe. We’re open to anything in that realm as long as it is doable,” he said. “That’s been one of the great things about our state and the response to this. We’ve really focused on the public health, but we also understand that the health of our economy affects the health of all our citizens, from mental health aspects, and for us being able to fund the parts of government that deals with healthcare, public safety, and education. So that’s an important part of this as well.”


“I think people just have to be smart. I’ve been to many a tailgate and plan to be at many more. If you were at a tailgate today, I’d tell people, if you can’t stay six feet apart from people, you need to wear a mask or be cognizant of that. Obviously, if you’re trying to eat or drink, it’s hard to do that with a mask on, so I think you’ll have to be really smart. But one thing about outdoor tailgating, it’s kind of like being at the beach or at the state park. As long as you keep folks spread out, you’re a lot less risky there than being in a confined, small space. I think most our tailgaters in the Bulldog Nation will be pretty smart about it.” – Kemp on what he would tell tailgaters.

“I certainly hope not. We’ve been through tough times in the state before, but our university system is a good one. Education is a priority for me, along with healthcare and public safety, and I know, regardless of what the budget looks like, there’s still a long way to go on that. I’m going to be fighting hard for education, public safety, and healthcare in the budget, to make sure we don’t have those drastic things happen. I know that will be a priority for a lot of us up here.” – Kemp on whether he’s worried about sports programs around the state dissolving due to campus budget cuts.

“I think Kirby has done a great job. The program is on really solid footing. We lost a lot of good players last year, but still had a great year. I think the sky’s the limit for us, because of our defense. If some of these new skill players we have coming in on offense produce, and we can win the turnover battle, and be solid on special teams, we can play with everybody in the country.” – Kemp on Kirby Smart and Georgia’s upcoming season.