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

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, July 17, 2020, 11:06 am

The Michigan High School Athletic Association is keeping the tiller pointed straight forward.

Rather than make changes to the normal lineup of sports to adjust for the possibility of cancellation by a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the MHSAA announced Friday it would begin the 2020-21 school year as traditionally scheduled, but with contingencies in place for later adjustment. 

That means football — for now, anyway — will still be in the fall.

And all the other outdoor sports — for now, anyway — will still be in their normal slots, as well.

“Our student-athletes just want to play, and we’ve gone far too long without them playing. But doing so safely, of course, remains the priority,” MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl said in a news release. “Our plan moving forward is fall in the fall, starting on time. We’re excited to continue moving forward to bring back sports safely. It’s important for keeping students in our schools and keeping students in our sports programs.”

The MHSAA’s 19-member executive council met Wednesday to discuss, in part, whether to change around the seasons — putting the lower-risk or outdoor sports in the fall, and moving contact sports like football to the spring, as has been often discussed, including by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — but determined it was not feasible to switch the fall and spring seasons. While fall sports like football, volleyball and boys soccer are considered moderate to high risk, so are the spring sports of girls soccer and boys lacrosse, making a straight switch of seasons somewhat counterproductive. 

“I’ll sum this up with the old Mike Tyson quote. I think it went something to the effect that ‘Everybody has a plan until you get hit in the mouth.’ What I can tell you our staff and our board has been doing the last three months is we’ve been coming up with a number of plans so that we can try and envision some of the scenarios we might be faced with, and what would be the three or four different options, off that plan, so we can do everything we can to get kids back to activities,” Uyl said Wednesday in an appearance on “The Huge Show” radio program.

The MHSAA’s plan has contingencies for the possible delay of the start of the fall seasons, another for the possible halting of higher-risk sports (while lower-risk sports continue), with the suspended sports completed next summer.

Football is slated to start at its regularly scheduled date of Aug. 10, followed by the rest of the fall sports on Aug. 12.

“We need to let folks know ‘Here is the plan for fall sports.’ Here are the sports that we are intending to start, here are the dates that those are going to start. This is what potential schedules could look like. But this is the plan, when we get to that week of Aug. 10, when the normal fall sports practices will begin,” Uyl said.

“And then I think with that plan will be the adjustments. … You know what, the first option is that we start those sports the week of Aug. 10, and if everybody is safe and healthy, we play those seasons and finish them, and everything is great. The second thing is, as Aug. 10 gets closer and we see that the data won’t allow us to start on time, on the 10th, so we delay the start of that whole group of sports until later in the month. Maybe there’s a scenario, based on the data that some sports can start on the week of Aug. 10, those lower-risk sports, but maybe another group of sports has to be delayed. Then there could be a scenario where some sports could go on and be played during the fall, but others would have to be postponed, and moved into the spring and summer next year. And that would certainly also be the case if all those fall sports could not start. 

“I think you’ve obviously got your best-case scenario, and then obviously three or four options that run off of that.

“The other thing that I think folks need to understand is that if we have to go into July next year, to finish some of our activities, we’re going to do so. We have heard, over and over again, from schools, and from parents — and most importantly — from kids, is we are willing to do whatever it takes here to get our seasons in.

“Especially, I never want to look at a senior class again of kids that have to go without a season, which our kids this past (spring) had to.”

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The MHSAA plans to follow this progression: 

1. Play Fall sports in the Fall, as scheduled.

2. If conditions require it, delay the start of some or all fall sports practices and competitions.

3. If conditions only allow some sports, play lower-risk fall sports with higher-risk fall sports postponed until later in the school year.

4. If any fall sport is postponed or suspended, resume the season using a reconfigured calendar that would see a completion of winter sports, followed by the fall and spring sea-ons potentially extending into July 2021.

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Football, as it usually is, was one of the biggest considerations to any plan.

While most high school sporting activities are relatively stand-alone, football is more of a community event, meaning there’s more to factor in than just how to get the participants on the field safely. 

“Of course it’s not just the sport of football that you’re considering. It’s everything that’s tied to football in the fall for so many schools. That means a large sideline cheerleading team. In many of our communities, that means a 100- or 200- — or even larger — -member marching band. To where those Friday nights are a way for those kids to show off, and really show their incredible talent and skill,” Uyl said. “Homecoming activities, just the vibe of so many of our communities — I know it was a book about high school football in Texas, but I’m sorry, ‘Friday Night Lights’ are very, very strong here in Michigan. So it’s not just figuring out the sport part of this, but what are school folks are also trying to figure out a way, is everything else that’s connected to that football experience in so many of our towns and cities.”

For now, that pageantry will all remain in the fall — with the possibility that it could be moved to next spring and/or summer, if this fall season is halted at any point.

Some states have already begun to cancel fall sports, or at least delay the start of them. An advantage some of those states have, though, is the fact that they can play outdoor sports year-round, something that isn’t a possibility here in Michigan. 

“The thing that they have that gives them even more flexibility is their climate. Out in New Mexico, you can play outdoor sports in January, February and March. When I look at some of my colleagues that are up in Houghton/Hancock … getting outdoors and even thinking about outdoor activities even in the month of March, you get some pretty interesting looks. That’s all going to be part of the equation,” Uyl said. 

“Certainly, given the contact nature of the sport, football presents some challenges, just as boys lacrosse present some challenges. Those are both close-quarter, close-contact, full-contact sports. … And even to a certain degree, volleyball, because that’s an indoor sport. As long as we’re remaining, in many parts of the state, in Phase 4, it’s going to be challenging to do any kind of activities indoors that would even have any kind of spectators or parents there.”

Football certainly isn’t the only contact sport that presents a worry: both boys and girls basketball and boys and girls soccer call for close proximity of athletes, as does volleyball. Wrestling has nothing but close contact.

An even bigger concern are the indoor sports in the winter. As of right now, most of the state — with the exception of Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula — are in Phase 4 of Gov. Whitmer’s recovery plan, which prohibits indoor workouts and competitions. Even those few areas in Phase 5 have limited ability to play and workout indoors. 

Unless the state progresses to the next phase before November, those seasons are in jeopardy, too. 

“Yeah, football has some challenges, but I don’t think those challenges are any greater than what we have in basketball and wrestling. To be honest, if there’s one sport that I have the most concern over whether we’re going to be able to get back into it safely, it’s wrestling. There’s no such thing as a wrestling practice using social distancing. That just cannot exist, other than just conditioning. The one thing that we do have with those winter sports where we’ve got some real concerns is we do have a few months here in front of us to see where things are at,” Uyl said. 

“The one thing we have now that we didn’t have back in March is we do have some time. You continue to hear promising signs about a possible vaccine — that does give us some hope for the calendar year of ’21, that things begin to trend back to normal.”

The MHSAA has been working closely with the governor’s office to provide planning for the potential of an upcoming school season. But Uyl has also maintained close contact with high school associations throughout the Great Lakes region, as well as with officials from both the NCAA Division II Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and the D-III Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association. 

He’s also been keeping an eye on what’s gone on this summer, with the knowledge that if school-based athletics are halted, it will create a vacuum that will be filled by others who might not be as concerned with following regulations. 

“Here’s the big fear: If we aren’t able to have sports this fall, I am going to guarantee you — I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that there will be entrepreneurs out there that will move in, and will now provide activities for kids. I’m seeing it already this summer. I’ve got a son who is part of a travel baseball team, a high-school aged team, and those tournaments are huge every weekend. If you didn’t know there was a pandemic going on, and you just walked up to the field, you wouldn’t think anything was different,” Uyl said. 

“The part of the frustration is that the non-school world, at least here in the summer, is kind of doing their thing with really little consideration to protecting the school seasons in the fall and beyond. Which is why we’re going to examine every possible pathway to have school-based activities this fall, because we know that if we don’t have it, kids are going to go somewhere else to try to find it.

“The athletic experience with the education during the school day is the safest environment that kids can play sports in, because you have professional educators who are putting health and safety first — rather than ‘Well, we have to run this weekend’s tournament, because that’s now my livelihood, and I have to make money with the 2,000 soccer players that are in my program.’ That’s the model of so many of these youth groups. Not negative toward those who are working in the non-school space, but I’m seeing it first-hand as a summer parent, and again that’s why we’re going to be as safely aggressive as we can be, so that we can have activities in our schools, come fall.”

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