The MHSAA announced plans last month to push forward with fall sports as scheduled even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and is on record that playing all three seasons to completion is their goal. That could mean that seasons get affected by the pandemic, or even rescheduled entirely. The organization will extend the competition calendar into July if necessary. Early indications are it will be, with the MHSAA already delaying the start of competition in volleyball and boys soccer, with a football delay also likely (we’ll find out by Aug. 20, they say).
Reasonable minds can differ as to the wisdom of not going through with a full fall/spring switcheroo, as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer suggested in early July. The MHSAA considered the idea, but decided that since a couple of spring sports, lacrosse and girls soccer, are high-risk sports (as are football, volleyball and boys soccer in the fall), such a move would be counterproductive. They also ruled out partial switches, to prevent multi-sport athletes from being forced to choose between two sports they love. Again, one can debate the merits of these ideas.
However, one thing that’s above debate, at least to me, is this: The MHSAA is to be commended for doing whatever it can to play three sports seasons.
“I never want to look at a senior class of kids again that have to go without a season like kids this past (spring) had to,” MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl said on one of his periodic appearances on The Huge Show, a statewide radio program.
It’s a sentiment expressed to me, directly or indirectly, over and over again when discussing this matter with coaches, athletic directors, and students themselves. The feedback has been overwhelming and unanimous: We want to play.
Unfortunately, it was announced Thursday that Lansing’s school district will cancel its fall sports seasons anyway. How this affects the decisions of other school districts is as yet unknown.
“I think losing their spring sports season, that’s something that was a real opportunity for our kids to pause, and our coaches too,” Whitehall football coach Tony Sigmon said last month after the school started its own summer workouts. “They don’t want to lose their senior year of football, basketball, or, God forbid, a second spring season. There’s very much this anticipation of getting clear answers, that 100 percent, we’re going to do this, and we’re going to do it this way.”
We’ve seen, over the past few months and particularly in recent weeks, a massive amount of debate over whether it’s possible, or even prudent, to return to pro and college sports action. The general refrain of “we should return when it’s safe” seems almost like a bad joke in a world where no personal interaction, outside of our own households, is really safe, let alone playing contact sports against one another.
While the return-to-play debate at the collegiate level is murkier because of the financial implications at play for colleges and universities, those implications aren’t really present at the high school level. (In any case, the debate might be moot. At press time, at least two major college football conferences had canceled their seasons, and it may lead to a domino effect that will cancel college football entirely for the fall; most of the non-Division I conferences already had given up on fall football.)
Whatever revenue high school sports generate, though, is almost wholly dependent on fan attendance, and the MHSAA knows better than to think that’s happening to any significant degree, if at all, this year.
No, at the high school level, the MHSAA is moving forward simply because kids want to play. Uyl pointed out on The Huge Show, with good reason, that if the MHSAA does not provide fall sports to student-athletes, they’re likely to seek them out elsewhere — and the MHSAA believes it can stage games in a safer fashion than a club team can.
Now, keep in mind, this is all subject to change, and in fact I’m sure the MHSAA would concede that it will likely change. With the virus still not under control in the area, schools may not even open on time, and if schools aren’t open, sports aren’t happening. Even if schools do open, the idea that there will be full-contact football or indoor volleyball in particular just a few weeks from now seems very optimistic.
All this is stipulated. The MHSAA knows things could and likely will change on a dime and that backup plans will need to be made. It would be far easier for them to just punt the issue, postpone or even scrub fall sports, and ignore the negative feelings from the students and their parents that would likely result. (While no state has outright canceled fall sports to date, several have postponed them and made drastic changes to their calendar.)
However this experiment turns out, though, I admire the inclination to give high school athletes a chance to compete. This might work out, and we might get three full seasons. It might not. But Michigan high school students are going to be given a chance. And in this environment, a chance is a beautiful thing.