Mark Edwards: In a state that distrusts COVID-19 vaccines, Tide's near-90 percent rate is incredible

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Jul. 21—HOOVER — Why has Nick Saban won so many championships?

We could spend all day covering why he wins, but part of it is he's so good at figuring out how to motivate each individual person to do what he wants.

That includes COVID-19 vaccination rates. While the rest of the South is languishing, Saban revealed Wednesday at his Southeastern Conference Media Days session that "pretty close to 90 percent" of his players have received the vaccine.

That's an astounding figure. It exceeds even the baseline the Southeastern Conference is trying to achieve of 80 percent. According to Sports Illustrated, eight of the 14 SEC teams haven't even reached the baseline.

It's a testament to Saban's ability to make his players and staff understand and accept that the vaccine is an important part of navigating today's world more safely. He's invited experts to come speak to his team about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, but he's also emphasized that it can minimize the chances of COVID-19 wrecking your season. A year ago during its national title run, the Crimson Tide had no major COVID-19 protocol issues, other than Saban himself testing positive and being forced to miss the Tide's win over Auburn.

Compare the Crimson Tide's vaccination figure to the rest of the population. According to New York Times' COVID-19 data tracker, nine of the 11 states with 50 percent or fewer adults fully vaccinated are within the SEC's 10-state footprint. Alabama (42.4 percent), Mississippi (43.3) and Arkansas (44.5) are bringing up the rear. Kentucky (55.7) is the only SEC state not in the bottom 11.

The national figure is 59.6 percent.

Among total population, Alabama is last in that, too, with 33.7 percent fully vaccinated with 48.7 percent as the national figure.

Saban isn't requiring that his players and staff get the vaccine. Neither is the Southeastern Conference.

It's tough to make it a requirement. The Food and Drug Administration hasn't given full approval of any COVID-19 vaccine yet, although with FDA leadership strongly encouraging the population to get vaccinated, approval is highly likely just a formality.

Saban acknowledges that the vaccine is a "personal decision that everybody has the right to make."

"On the other hand," he added Wednesday, "you also have a competitive decision to make because you're going to be a part of a team."

Saban pointed out how North Carolina State's baseball team was eliminated late in the College World Series not because of a loss on the field but because of positive COVID-19 tests.

"How does it affect the team if you bring (COVID-19) to the team? So these are choices and decisions that every player has to make," Saban said.

He said he has had three separate sessions with medical professionals speaking to his players, giving the pros and cons of the "whole COVID circumstance, the vaccine circumstance, so that they can make intelligent decisions about what they do."

Alabama defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis has listened.

"I got it, so I don't see nothing wrong with it," he said, "but at the end of the day, you've got to respect everybody's decision on why they don't want it or do want it."

The vaccine is winning over converts ... gradually. Heck, even Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who represented Ole Miss and then Auburn at past SEC Media Days, posted to social media Wednesday in support of vaccines: "Getting the COVID vaccine only takes a few minutes. It's effective, safe, and doesn't cost you a dime. I got mine, and I encourage you to talk to your doctor about getting yours."

He once called the pandemic "overblown."

As for Saban, he's working on exceeding that 90 percent threshold: "I'm hopeful that more players make that decision, but it is their decision."

Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.

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