As the dominos start to fall for sports nationwide, the MHSAA is still optimistic it can pull off all three scheduled sports seasons — at least for now.
At the state level, Michigan continues to be in a better place than most of the United States with regards to COVID-19, but confirmed case counts have increased in the area in recent weeks. Muskegon County was up to 881 confirmed cases as of Thursday, with 53 deaths, while Oceana County was up to 372 cases, with four deaths. According to a Johns Hopkins University tracker, the seven-day rolling average of positive tests in the state has crept up from 2 percent to 2.5 percent.
Nationally, the shape of sports has looked bleak thanks to huge increases of virus infection. The Big Ten Conference announced Thursday that any sports, including football, that take place this fall would omit non-conference events, and other conferences are reportedly set to follow suit. Several college football programs have had to shut down workouts due to positive tests, and even in the ‘bubbles’ of pro sports, there have been small clusters of COVID cases, as well as several athletes electing not to participate.
The state of in-person education this fall is in jeopardy, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer conceded earlier this week on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer”. Michigan released a safety plan for in-person learning on June 30, but the rise in cases since then has concerned the governor as well as others.
With those concerns naturally come concerns about the state of high school sports for the fall.
“I don’t like what I’m seeing now,” Whitehall athletic director Greg Russell said. “Our numbers are not trending the right direction. We have to be in session to have sports, bottom line....It will be a really tough one to, essentially in a month, get these numbers turned around.”
Michigan, for the moment, remains in Phase 4 of the MI Safe Start plan, and under the MHSAA’s own return-to-play guidance, lower-risk sports like golf, cross-country and tennis can hold games in Phase 4. However, three big fall sports — football, volleyball and boys soccer — remain at risk.
The Michigan football coaches’ association held a virtual call earlier this week with MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl, and Montague coach and athletic director Pat Collins said the call was productive and informative.
“They’re pretty steadfast to make sure Michigan has three sports seasons,” Collins said. “We’re pretty encouraged. Some of the key things start at the top, in two respects. One is the governor’s decisions, and the other is the pro and college level programs. We start looking at the MIAA, GLIAC, Big Ten and MAC, and they all affect our state quite a bit. Obviously the NFL with the Lions (as well). What are they doing? As of right now, Mark Uyl feels all of them will play, but it will look different.”
Already, the National Federation of State High School Associations have agreed on changes to hopefully make football season safer. Collins said the coaching box has been extended to the 10-yard line on each side of the field to promote distancing, and the NFHS also recommended outdoor team meetings instead of using the locker rooms. The possibility of full face shields on facemasks exists as well, on top of promoting the use of masks on coaches.
However, even with all of that, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen. The superintendent of the intermediate school district in Dallas, Michael Hinojosa, told MSNBC Thursday that high school football in Texas is in doubt, and Texas is among the most football-crazed states in America. If it can happen there, one would think, it can happen anywhere.
Amidst all of this, Whitmer suggested last week that the MHSAA swap the spring and fall sports seasons, since most of the spring sports are lower-risk. While the idea makes sense on paper, Russell said such a move is unlikely.
“I don’t see that as a viable option,” Russell said. “There are so many variables and so many things have to take place. The spring kids already lost their season last year. The MHSAA said we’re going to try to have fall sports in the fall.”
Collins added that the MHSAA’s determination to have three full seasons will likely build in the possibility for postponed events. Tournaments could even extend into the summer if need be.
“They were the last association in the country to hold on to potentially finishing the boys basketball playoffs,” Collins said, referring to the final cancellation not being announced until early April. “They said we’d do it in the summer if we have to. They’d run a season to mid-July, where we are now, if they have to. They’ll allow spring sports to carry through the summer to get those in.”
It’s all, hopefully, in service of not having athletes lose any more opportunities than the ones lost this last spring. Everyone involved wants sports to return, not least the students.
“We had such a great turnout for our workouts prior to July,” Russell said. “The kids were just clamoring for interaction. They want to be with their coaches and want to be at school. Hopefully the numbers change a little and we’re able to do that. It’s really important to get the kids back to normal, face-to-face school. It’s really our focus.”