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College cancellations won’t force MHSAA’s hand, executive director Mark Uyl says; ‘Don’t make decisions just because somebody else did’

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, August 12, 2020, 6:06 pm

As the summer has gone along, nothing has really persuaded the Michigan High School Athletic Association to deviate from its course of at least attempting to engage in athletics as normal this fall.

And domino after domino falling on the collegiate level — with the Big Ten, Mid-American Conference, Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Association and Great Lakes Athletic Conference all pulling the plug on fall sports over the last two weeks — hasn’t made a dent, either.

That’s fine, they said, but that’s not us.

“There isn’t a downside to waiting and digesting and seeing where things are at. … Just slow things down, and don’t make decisions just because somebody else did,” MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl said in his weekly appearance on “The Huge Show” radio program. “I think you have to look at your own situation, and your own metrics, and your unique spot and just try to navigate it as best as you can.”

All along, Uyl has said he’s been in contact with leaders from the Big Ten, MAC, MIAA and GLIAC — as well as neighboring states’ high school associations — to monitor the decisions they’re all making. 

But there’s a fundamental difference between the colleges (and pros) and high schools that are part of the reason the MHSAA hasn’t rushed out to follow suit. 

“I think there are some unique parts that we have at the high school level, that is really a completely different dynamic than at the college level. At the high school level, things are incredibly local. Nothing happens at the collegiate level that could be characterized as local. Even if you’re going to have a conference-only schedule in the Big Ten, you’re going all way from New Jersey, and Rutgers, all the way out to Lincoln, Neb., and every place in between. At our level, you’ve really got kids in their own communities, and if we’re going to be able to compete, with that local flavor, of really not having to travel 100-odd people on planes or busses, in hotels — just all the logistical things with moving a team,” Uyl said. 

“Certainly we’re looking at what the college levels are doing. But … we’ll just continue to take things slowly. You take it — literally right now — on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. …

“I think you certainly have to pay attention to the college level, but we’re also much different. I don’t think the college level made their decisions — for example, the MAC, which has already made the call — that was not strictly based on the medical information and the data. That really became an economic decision, to where with all the Power 5, all the conferences going to conference-only scheduling, the MAC was really left without much of a schedule, and those non-conference games that the MAC plays, they support and fund virtually every other sport in their athletic program. You certainly have to look and pay attention, and see what all of the reasons are, but again at the high school level, we’re unique in that we’re uber-local, we’re ultra-local, and that’s one of the reasons that I think — and a lot of our member schools think — that we can do sports safely in the fall.”

Some school districts — “Less than a handful,” Uyl said — have made the choice for themselves, opting out of fall sports on their own. Most notable was the Lansing School District last week, followed by St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic on Tuesday. 

Everybody else will have to just wait.

And the college cancellations hasn’t added any sense of urgency for the MHSAA.

“As much as everybody would love definite answers and decisions of ‘Well, this is what things WILL be … this is what things WILL look like in September and October,’ I just … my crystal ball doesn’t work that well. You literally have to slow down, and take things in one-week increments,” Uyl said. 

“Still a lot of moving parts, both in front of and behind the curtain. Literally, on the football side, we’re just taking things a day at a time. In a perfect world, if we can have more guidance and direction this week yet on Thursday or Friday, so everybody can kind of retool and refocus on what next week is going to look like, that would be ideal. 

“We can only move, sometimes, as fast as we get information and direction from our elected and state health department leaders. 

“If I had a nickel for every time I said ‘We’re going to take things literally on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis,’ I’d be a very wealthy man, but that will continue to be our game-plan moving ahead.”

Uyl said he still anticipates the MHSAA issuing its next guidance for the fall — which will give more clarity on the ability for teams in the three higher-risk sports of football, volleyball and boys soccer — by Aug. 20 at the latest. 

The 19-member Representative Council will meet again before then — Uyl was not specific on the date — something it has been doing with more frequency of late. 

“We’re right now meeting more often than we ever have, and we can schedule those very quickly, if they are virtual meetings, and we’re not having to bring folks in from hundreds of miles away,” he said. “In this day of instant communication, you can make some decisions and communicate with virtually everybody that you need to connect with here, within about an hour of decisions being made.

“Just like a good hitter, you wanna watch that pitch as long as you can, as deep as that ball can get, before you decide to swing. 

“We’re kind of trying to take that same philosophy here of trying to get as many data points and as much feedback as we can, so when decisions are made we communicate as quickly as we can, using all the means that we have.”

Football practices started Monday with just helmets, pushing the addition of pads back a week. Other fall sports were scheduled to begin practice on Wednesday. 

Girls swimming and volleyball have the challenge of being indoor sports. For the majority of the state — excepting the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan region — practices cannot yet begin indoors. 

“Currently, the indoor facilities — the school gyms, school weight rooms, school swimming pools — remain close under the governor’s order in the six regions that are not yet in Phase 5, so what our volleyball and swim teams are going to be doing over the remainder of the week is finding an outdoor location where they can practice. For swimmers, that might mean dry-land training, or for those swim team that are able to connect with a facility with an outdoor pool, a country club or some other venue, they’ll be able to get kids in the water,” Uyl said.

“In our conversations with the governor’s office, we do believe that clarification and more guidance about the opening of those indoor facilities should be coming very, very soon, because obviously our government leadership needs to do something with school facilities, because we actually have school districts that are opening for classes and kids already next week.”

First contest for sports such as boys tennis (Lower Peninsula), girls golf (LP), girls tennis (Upper Peninsula) are slated for Aug. 19, while boys soccer, girls swimming and diving, volleyball and cross country are scheduled for Aug. 21. The first football games are scheduled for Aug. 27.

If, of course, the go-ahead comes. 

“For our three team sports — volleyball, soccer and football — we’ll make some decisions by Aug. 20, regarding competition schedules. That could mean that we’ll move forward as scheduled, that could mean that we’re going to need to pause or delay or push things back, or could potentially be, as the landscape continues to change, that we can’t compete this fall, and we’ll now look for another time in the school year, where we can hopefully find a window to compete.  We’re in contact with our board on a daily basis, but by the 20th — and I’m hoping it’ll be earlier, and before the 20th — that we’ll have some more guidance and direction for everybody,” Uyl said.

“Again, I want to see the data, and how the trends are going — as much as I love to see what’s going on in other states and other levels — I wanna see how this first week, with football kids in helmets, how that’s gone. I wanna hear about how those first few days of practice are going, then we look at what next week brings. 

“That’s our plan right now, and we’ll just keep moving forward.”

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RELATED READING:

Lansing School District cancels fall extracurricular activities, including athletics (Aug. 7)

MHSAA Representative Council gives thumbs-up to on-time start for lower-risk fall sports, tables decision on competition for high-risk sports (July 29)

• MHSAA announces plan to begin 2020-21 school year as traditionally scheduled, leaving football (for now) in the fall (July 17)

• For now, plan is still to have fall sports in the fall, MHSAA reassures its membership (July 2)

What does the ‘MI Safe Schools’ return to school roadmap say about high school sports? Here’s a look (July 1)

Gov. Whitmer to MHSAA: Consider moving contact sports back from the fall (June 30)

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• MHSAA updates guidelines, allowing northern Michigan schools to move workouts indoors starting Wednesday (June 9)

• MHSAA adjusts to curveball of early lifting of stay-at-home order, amends guidance doc for reopening sports  (June 2)

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• MHSAA gives schools heads up that ‘Guidance for Opening School Sports’ is coming next week (May 22)

• Q&A with MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl, after Friday’s decision to cancel remaining 2019-20 sports seasons (April 3)

• MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl explains agonizing decision to cancel remainder of winter and spring seasons; ‘My heart absolutely breaks for kids in the class of 2020’ (April 3)

• MHSAA officially cancels spring and winter sports, putting an end to the 2019-20 athletic year (April 3)

• Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announces closure of Michigan schools for remainder of 2019-20, stipulates K-12 sports are suspended ‘while state of emergency … is in effect’ (April 2)

• With Gov. Whitmer reportedly set to close Michigan schools for remainder of academic year, can cancellation of high school sports be far behind?  (March 30)

• ‘What now?’ and ‘What next?’: A look at how Michigan’s prep athletes are coping with the ‘pause’ of the postseason, and what it might theoretically take to ‘unpause’ (March 17)

• MHSAA extends halt of athletic activities to include practices, scrimmages until at least April 5(March 13)

• MHSAA puts postseason on pause due to concerns over COVID-19 (March 12)

• UPDATED: MHSAA postseasons impacted by coronavirus; games put on pause, postponed indefinitely (March 11)