High school sports may not look the same this school year – if they are even played at all. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging in some states, including Arkansas, plans are being made accordingly.
Last week, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed that fall team sports such as football should be moved to the spring because they cannot be played safely this fall.
“I’m also calling on the Michigan High School Athletic Association to consider postponing fall sports that have the impossibility of social distancing as a part of them, considering moving those to the spring and running some of the more individualized sports like track and field or tennis or golf to the fall,” Whitmer said. “I anticipate a decision from them somewhere around July 20 to 25, is what they’ve indicated.
“The MHSAA is a private organization that regulates (high school) sports, and I think this is something they should consider.”
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson made a statement of his own last week declining to allow contact sports such as football and basketball the go-ahead to resume group contact drills. Currently, Arkansas prep football teams are conducting offseason conditioning drills with a litany of Arkansas Dept. of Health guidelines including no contact. Hutchinson said those sports couldn’t begin contact drills until the state moves to Phase 3.
Considering that Arkansas’ Covid-19 cases doubled to nearly 900 cases last Thursday, the largest one-day increase, Hutchinson may want to visit with Arkansas Activities Association Executive Director Lance Taylor to formulate a similar plan to Michigan.
Unlike Michigan, Arkansas plays golf and tennis in the fall, so that can’t be swapped out. Those sports along with cross country should be able to be played this fall as long as schools remain open, which could also be in jeopardy at this point.
But, for argument’s sake let’s say school is in session but contact sports are not viable. One option would be to swap out volleyball and football with softball and baseball. Youth, travel teams and American Legion squads statewide have played tournaments all summer. So far, no outbreak has been reported or tournaments canceled due to players or spectators becoming sick. I have attended three of my eight-year-old son’s tournaments, along with weekly league games, and with masks and social distancing have felt very safe. As for my son, baseball is a sport that promotes distancing. Players very rarely come in contact with the opponent. Coaches have been careful not to get too close, and so have his teammates. Keep your distance in the dugout not much celebrating and absolutely no shared water bottles or even coolers.
So, varsity baseball and softball this fall, even in the current conditions, would be easy to pull off. There would be hurdles to clear, though. If football is moved administrators would have to allow for a month, which is normally August, for teams to practice in earnest for competition. That could be February although the weather could play a factor. Some teams don’t have indoor practice facilities. Then begin the season in March and play the state championships in May. Soccer and track and field would also be played then and volleyball if swapped. Those sports draw fewer competitors, so sharing transportation shouldn’t be a problem.
The other big issue would be what to do with basketball. Starting it in October or November and finishing in February would be good so the two don’t overlap. Basketball normally finishes with the state title games the second week in March. For football to play 10 regular-season games (three nonconference and seven conference games) and the playoffs, it would need 15 weeks.
I visited with one Arkansas prep basketball coach who confirmed the idea of swapping sports had been mentioned earlier as a possibility and that he would be in favor of starting basketball early to accommodate a spring football season.
One football coach/administrator I spoke with found holes in the Michigan proposal. He said football players wouldn’t be prepared for the rigors of the season since they wouldn’t undergo the lifting regimen they do in the summer to prepare their joints for the pounding. He pointed out that several would play baseball and basketball, and they wouldn’t lift like normal. He also said the policy isn’t good for small schools that rely on football to pay for the spring sports, which lose money. He didn’t think some would be able to afford the cost of spring sports in the fall. Depending on the district, some may have money left in their budget from last school year when the spring season was nearly nonexistent. That would appear to be the answer for most, but there may be some that still may be short.
There’s not a perfect solution to a problem that changes daily. I don’t envy Taylor and his staff. The bottom line for me is, if it’s possible, avoid canceling any sport. It was heartbreaking to see the reaction to those players who didn’t get to the play the state basketball championships or spring sports. So, heading into the 2020-21 school year goal of the AAA should be to have plans, A, B, C, D, E, F and G that allow for all seasons to be completed if school isn’t completely closed which would make the subject moot.
Football would seem to be a priority because it pays the bills for so many departments. I know that whenever that sport is played crowds will show up. That’s a guarantee, so playing it is important and is no slight to the others.
Moving sports around, shortening the seasons, moving some sports to next summer – whatever needs to be done should be on the table at this point. With some creativity I am sure it can be cobbled together for those hundreds of student-athletes statewide.