COLUMN: Getting high school athletes back in the game

By TOM WILLIAMS

It has basically been a couple of months now that most of us have been quarantined, venturing out just occasionally and looking for things to do around the house. A lot of home improvements have taken place in these eight weeks.

But people in the sports community have been spending time thinking about ways to bring sports back to high schools.

A lot of coaches and media people you probably know expressed their thoughts last week. You can read them here. The discussion was opened by Mike McGarry’s column in the Press of Atlantic City, which is here. There are also two collections of the thoughts of prominent high school athletes about the quarantine here.

The general feeling seems to be this – lets find a way to make sure no student-athletes miss out on an entire season like the spring sport athletes did this year. But lets do it safely.

Mainland’s award-winning athletics director, Mike Gatley, has some thoughts.

“Know that I am not in favor of switching seasons,” Gatley says, “but I am also not in favor of the kids losing any more opportunities. Also know,  without a plan for opening schools, all the discussions on athletics are moot. If one has a plan for the schools, then one has a plan for athletics.
“If we play anything it would potentially mean: adjusted seasons, levels adjusted, games adjusted, philosophies adjusted, multi-athletes compromised – sacrifices everywhere to be able to play something. In the end, there needs to be numerous plans, with sport-specific safety protocols.”
If season changes are necessary, Gatley has offered these potential changes –
  • Fall: baseball, softball, cross country, tennis, track & field; golf; volleyball; crew.
  • Winter: basketball; swimming; fencing; ice hockey.
  • Spring: football; soccer; field hockey; lacrosse; wrestling.

There are some conflicts there. As Gatley said, multi-sport athletes will be compromised and may have tough decisions to make. Football and wrestling in the same season is a challenge. So is soccer, field hockey and lacrosse. It might be a good idea to move cross country to the spring so it would be separate from track & field.

“I am not a scientist, just an AD who is an advocate for kids,” Gatley says. “I can work with others to develop protocols and standards and I can follow rules. If there is no school, there will be no athletics. If there is modified or virtual school, we need plans. From my perspective there are three – normal fall sports with late practice and start date; modified fall sports in general; or switching sports seasons based on science and recommendations.”
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the highest risk sports for spreading the virus are football, wrestling, boys lacrosse and competitive cheerleading. The lowest risks are in individual (no-relay) running and swimming events, throwing events, golf, weightlifting, alpine skiing, single rowing and sideline cheering. All other sports fall in between, in the moderate category.
Last week’s comments were interesting. Brian Cunniff asked many important questions. Mike Frankel looked out for the spring athletes. Tim Watson encouraged administrators to include coaches in the decision. Mike Gill suggests a fall and spring split schedule in baseball. There are lots more – check them out.
A vaccine is the goal, but we have to try to work around that development,” Gatley adds. “Is it perfect – no. A ton of work – yes. But many hands make light work. The option – what I have always believed – ‘when in doubt, cancel the bout’. But I will stand by, ‘it can work’.”
One other proposal calls for switching all the fall sports with all of the spring sports. Another just calls for switching baseball with football. Still another idea floated has no sports the rest of the calendar year, then shortened schedules for winter sports in January-February, traditional fall sports in March-April and spring sports in May-June.
As Gatley and others have stated, all of these discussions and proposals will mean little if schools are not at least partially open to in-building attendance. That will be determined over the next month or two and a lot of it will depend on how many people wear masks and practice social distancing; how many people obey the limits on social gatherings; and how many gyms, restaurants, hair salons and similar businesses strictly follow the guidelines developed by the scientists.
It isn’t fun wearing a mask or not being able to shake a hand or give a hug. But it is important. And everybody should remember that these are not personal decisions. If we don’t follow the approved guidelines and regulations it is not just our safety and health we are putting at risk.
Every decision we make impacts family, friends and neighbors. And, if failure to behave safely causes another spike in infections and deaths, our decisions could also affect the future of high school sports.

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