ACC, new commissioner taking cautious approach to pressing issues

Jim Phillips deferred taking a position on subjects such as COVID-19 vaccinations, NIL, College Football Playoff expansion and a restructuring of the NCAA during remarks at the ACC's Football Kickoff event

ACC commissioner Jim Phillips speaks during the league's Football Kickoff media event in Charlotte in 2021. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — Six months after taking over for predecessor John Swofford, Jim Phillips is still going through a feeling out process in his new role as commissioner of the ACC.

It’s a similar approach he and the rest of the league’s leadership is taking toward some of the most pressing issues facing those in charge of the rapidly changing world of college athletics.

Addressing the media for the first time in his tenure on Wednesday, Phillips deferred taking a position during remarks at the league’s annual Football Kickoff event.

That includes the ACC’s policy on COVID-19 vaccinations and the consequences for teams unable to play because of virus-related issues.

“As it relates to vaccines and any policies or mandates, those decisions will remain at the discretion of each member institution,” the new commissioner said, adding that more than half of the conference’s 15 teams have achieved at least an 80% vaccination rate. “Personally, I believe that vaccinations are critical to the protection of all and helping to achieve the goal of eliminating the COVID-19 virus and its variants. But I also deeply respect that getting vaccinated is a personal choice.”

Unlike the SEC and Big 12, both of which have determined that games will be forfeited rather than rescheduled in the event of a COVID outbreak, the ACC is still trying to decide which direction it will go.

The uncertainty can be traced, at least in part, by the situation that led to NC State’s dismissal from the College World Series last month.

“It would break my heart, as it did this summer, for any of our student-athletes or coaches who continue to work so hard on their sports to have to miss a game due to a positive test or contact tracing,” Phillips said. 

“As it relates to not making a declaration about if it’s going to be a cancellation or a forfeit, we all really wanted to wait a couple more weeks or so. I think there’s some more information that we’re going to be able to gather. … It will be forthcoming. We certainly will be transparent when that decision is made and let everybody know.”

The ACC’s stance on expansion of the College Football Playoff and changes to the structure of the NCAA are just as ambiguous.

“I don’t want anybody to foreclose either good or bad on the playoff. We’re still learning about the playoff,” Phillips said, adding that he plans to seek out opinions from players, coaches and administrators on the subject.

“There’s debate to this thing, which is great. We need that. I’ll look forward by September, as we get ready to have another CFP meeting, having the ACC having a position on where we stand.”

As far as the restructuring of the NCAA, something president Mark Emmert recently suggested was possible, Phillips said that “this is the right time to have a complete holistic review” of college sports’ governing body.

“There’s been so many things that have happened in our space here that the timing is right,” Phillips said. “No predetermined outcomes. Let’s take a look.

“President Emmert has kind of called for it, a recalibration of the NCAA. I think we should take him up on that opportunity and let’s work collaboratively with the NCAA, with our conferences, with our presidents, athletic directors and such. Let’s spend the next eight, 12 months figuring this thing out.”

Phillips suggested that a similar discussion about the implementation of the NCAA’s new name, image and likeness legislation is even more pressing because of the lack of a uniform, national standard on the issue.

Regardless of how the situation is resolved, Phillips said that the ability of athletes to earn money from their name, image and likeness can never become a recruiting tool that gives one or a group of schools a competitive advantage over the others.

“I think there’s incredible opportunities for our student-athletes coming, but we need a national standard,” he said. “In our conference, we have four states with state legislation, we have two with state directives, and we have four that rely on the NCAA rule. You can see within our 15 schools and our 10 states there’s an unevenness to what student-athletes can do.

“I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes. We need federal help. I think we’ll get it. But I hope it’s sooner rather than later.”

As for the action on the field of play, the first games can’t get here soon enough for a new commissioner presiding over his first preseason preview event.

“If you’re anything like me, you’ve been looking forward to this event for many months,” Phillips told the gathered group of writers and broadcasters. “This is a wonderful opportunity to gather together as we look ahead to the upcoming fall seasons with great anticipation in a hopefully more normal year.”