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MHSAA continues to press its case for winter contact sports to begin sooner rather than later

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, January 29, 2021, 6:53 pm

Despite the saying to the contrary, no news isn’t necessarily good or bad, it just is.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association didn’t necessarily have anything specific to report in its Friday morning Zoom meeting with the state’s media, but it gave everyone a chance to voice questions and get some answers to those questions without having it be rushed, like it had been seven days prior. 

That day, when most of the MHSAA and half of the media was either at Ford Field or en route for the state football finals, the news dropped from Lansing that the epidemic order delaying the start of the four indoor contact winter sports — basketball (boys and girls), hockey, competitive cheer and wrestling — was pushed back to Feb. 21. 

Since then, there’s been a flurry of activity and outcry — all surrounding that push back — without any real definitive change in the facts of the order itself. 

It could be coming, as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer indicated in a TV appearance on Thursday. The newly opened lines of communication, thanks to the new director at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Elizabeth Hertel, could help.

“I have to thank the new director of the Department of Health and Human Services, Director Hertel. I can tell you that the previous four days of communication this week, with her department, has been better than it probably has been in the previous four months,” MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl said at the start of the meeting, before he got into the Q&A portion. “It certainly is a very clear change that communication and dialogue is something that is valued by Director Hertel. We’re appreciative of the communication we’ve had. Now, at some point here, decisions will need to be made, and hopefully those will be made very, very quickly. But to be completely fair, we do need to thank director Hertel for the communication we’ve gotten the last four days.”

Rather than pare down Uyl’s answers, or omit some that might be useful to what everyone’s wondering, below is the transcription of the Zoom meeting (edited some for length in certain spots):

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Uyl opened the proceedings with a statement. 

Key quotes form that were as follows:

“Really going back months — in particular, really going back to November, we have worked to get information and data to the decision-makers, which really have been the office of the Governor, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

I think the question that everybody’s had, going back to mid-November, is: What are the numbers that are preventing us from play. The corollary question to that is, what do the numbers have to look like for us to be able to play. Going back to mid-November, given the escalating daily cases, given that our positive test rate was quite high, we certainly can understand why not just school sports, but many other things went on pause. You now fast-forward two and a half months later, our statewide daily cases is a third of what it was back in mid-November. The positive test rate is now half of what it was then, so it does beg the question right now of, given those great improvement of the metrics, what are the metrics being used specifically, when it comes to school sports. Those are the two questions we continue to push each day, and that certainly continues. Just know that whenever we’ve been allowed to play, going back to August, if that was certain sports, certain times, we’ve played. And we’ve been ready to do that, and that will continue to be our focus. 

———

Uyl indicated the MHSAA would get one final update on the stats from the pilot rapid-testing program that allowed the conclusion on the three paused fall postseasons:

“We thought the numbers would be good. The numbers were extraordinarily good. … Pretty good snapshot of a full-contact sport, along with two indoor sports, as well. …

“One thing that we can’t forget about is that it’s Day 14 of winter practices. Back on Jan. 16, all of our winter teams could begin gathering and practicing. Now, certainly in the four contact sports, there hasn’t been able to be any physical contact during those workouts, or any competition. But we’ve been gathering groups of kids and coaches together, every day, indoors. And now on day 14, the success that we’ve gotten back from our schools has been incredibly good. The feedback we’ve gotten now in two weeks of practice is just how well winter sports practices are going and based on the data I’ve already shared with you — we just feel like the data lends itself for us to take the next step. The one approach the governor’s office and the health department liked, going all the way back to August is a phased-in approach, and now we’ve got the data from the pilot program, the data from other states, we have the actual data from our winter sports from the last 14 days, and we now firmly believe is the time to take the next step, and allow those four winter sports, for those contact practices to begin immediately, and for competition to also begin immediately, as well.”

———————

Q&A PORTION

What can the MHSAA do to facilitate the start of winter contact sports?

UYL: With the change of leadership that’s been a positive this week, and then what’s going on outside of us. I need to thank a lot of (media), because again a lot of our media members have written articles citing the science and data. … 

What you can’t forget is, you talk about ‘How big is the school sports community?’ We’ve got roughly 1,500 member schools. About 750 high schools and another 150 junior high and middle schools. Each year, we have 200,000 kids, in grades 6-12 that participate in an MHSAA sport. Then you go and add in the number of coaches, the number of officials, school staff, parents, family members. When it’s all said and done, our MHSAA community numbers about a half a million people. It’s been very reinvigorating this week to see so many really speak out, to ask those pointed questions of what are the numbers that are preventing us from playing now, and what do the numbers look like for us to continue. 

As far as the urgency, and where to we go now — this week has been productive, but we’re hoping for new information and answers from decision makers very soon, but hopefully the entire community’s work is going to bear fruit here very soon. 

What is your reaction to the hearings in the legislature, the swell of public outcry with ‘Let Them Play’ movement?

UYL: I think overall, the people in the school sports are pretty reasonable people. I think we all understood, going back to last November, when numbers were skyrocketing, why a pause had to be made. We’re a responsible people here. We’re an organization that’s governed and led by educators. We’re in this work for what’s best for kids. When you talk about what’s best for kids, health and safety has to be a topic that comes up. When you talk about health and safety, certainly mitigating as much COVID risk is part of that conversation. But for me what came out loud and clear for me yesterday, and I thought the most powerful voice yesterday came from students themselves. It’s about health and safety, and COVID’s a part of that, but mental health is an awfully big component of this, as well. You look at what our numbers are, you look at what is going on in other states — school-based sports has not been the super-spreader event. It certainly wasn’t in the fall, and it hasn’t been with what other states have done in thee winter. That data is simply not there. … 

I think the most important voices, that won the day yesterday, were those of our kids. They, I think, are showing incredible leadership, showing an incredible civic duty, where they’re trying to hold our government leaders accountable, to give us those answers to what are those numbers that are preventing us from playing currently, and what do they have to look like for us moving forward? I thought our young people won the day yesterday. 

How will the spring sports be impacted by the continuing delay in starting winter contact sports?

UYL: That’s a good question, and one that we probably don’t have a good answer to yet. The start of spring sports, we’re now about a month and a half out from when the first published day of spring practice can begin. The reality is that we need to see exactly when winter sports can start and really once winter sports — really, when I say winter sports, it’s when all our winter sports are really able to fully compete, so we now know what that start date is, we can then set the end date, as far as the tournament experience, and then we’ll be able to finalize exactly what the spring calendar can look like. But to do anything right now to spring sports, again having some uncertainty about exact start date of winter is going to be, that’s just something that we’re going to have to kind of put on hold in the short term. 

In the improved dialogue with the MDHHS leadership, has the MHSAA been provided with specific benchmark numbers to meet yet? 

UYL: We haven’t gotten into specifics or numbers yet. What we have been able to do is to really try to make our case, bring the new director up to speed with all of the data and metrics that we’ve already shared earlier. As much of a surprise as we all were Friday morning at Ford Field, when that announcement at 9:30 came out, the fact that we’re having communication ahead of time, and dialogue here, hopefully before the next set of decisions gets made, that’s a step in the right direction. If nothing else — and I’m sure that that folks can criticize me for a lot of things, but not being willing to pick up the phone and communicate and talk to people, whether it’s easy conversations, or difficult conversations — that’s something we feel like we do pretty well around here, and thankfully the new director kind of sees the world that same way. We’re hoping that the foundation and the work that’s happened here then past few days will hopefully bear some results here, soon.

With several groups indicating the intent to sue the state over the epidemic orders, has the MHSAA given consideration to legal efforts, as well? 

UYL: The legal part of this — I think you need to be a little bit of a student of history, and under some of these emergency orders, you saw groups such as the gym and fitness owners, you saw the restaurant group that went to file legal action, and were very unsuccessful. Really, to use a sports analogy, it really didn’t get out of the starting blocks, so if we’re going to be able to get some movement — and given the fact this week that there is some better communication, and we feel like, for the first time in a long time, that they’re looking at the data, and they understand the data, and they see how the data can affect decisions, that’s really where we’re putting our entire focus right now. Because we think that’s going to be a strategy to get all of us better answers, much more quickly than going the legal route.

With the delay, has there been any consideration of canceling winter sports, or postponing, so as not to set back spring?

UYL: Our goal going back to last July has been three seasons, and we still have the opportunity to do that. It is still January. I realize that the runway that normally winter sports have in terms of their starting month and ending month looks a lot different than it normally has done before. But don’t forget that we finished some fall championships in the previous two weeks here, in January, that were two months later than they were regularly scheduled for, as well. The goal is still three seasons that all reach the finish line. We have to know that our winter is going to start, and then we can then set when that finishes, and we can then set up how that impacts spring. And we’ll go from there. It’s important to know that, yeah, spring lost their entire season last year, and we’re still looking exactly at — once we know a winter answer, what the right start date is for spring is. Those of you that cover spring sports in our state, know that the first month, the biggest story every year is weather. Could a slight delay make some sense? 

Then the other thing that’s important to know is that, given our spring sports lost their entire season last year, know that we gave all of our spring sports 16 full-squad coach-player contact days. 

Once you get the go-ahead to begin practices for contact winter sports, how quickly competition follow?

UYL: I think all of us, once we get the go-ahead, the competition can happen very, very quickly, within a few days. As many of you know, my wife is a girls basketball coach, and going back to Jan. 16 with practice, I’m not sure that at least in that case, basketball kids have ever done as much running and shooting, in terms of getting their bodies in condition and being ready to go, than this year. Typically, we start winter sports practices, scrimmages happen a week later, and then games start soon after that. Our winter kids, in those contact sports have two more weeks in terms of physical conditioning than they would ever get during the course of a normal season. I think that can happen very, very quickly. In terms of those starting dates, a lot of our schools continue to have basketball schedules that were set on the first day of competition happening next Wednesday, Feb. 4. Until we get to that date, and know exactly what’s going on, we’re going to keep all of our tournament dates finishing up in early April at that same spot. We hear about the runway shrinking for winter, but there is still enough runway left for those four contact sports to be able to start quickly, to be able to get those regular-season games in, to where, with some creative scheduling, where you may end up having about the same number of regular season games as you would in a traditional season. Again, we’re just hoping for those decision-makers to give us some reconsideration, and hopefully some good news to everybody involved here soon.

Thoughts on schools and individuals leaving to play outside the state?

UYL: Going back to June, we have seen example after example, after example of kids and families are going to go find activity. Period. We have been naive to think that folks are going stay in their basement, and not go seek that activity. It’s happening all the time. It’s outside of our control. I’ve been frustrated at times, because I felt like given the fact that we’re organized, that we have accountability in place. Our schools are following the rules. Our schools are following the epidemic and emergency orders. You then look in the non-school space, and it looks a little bit like the Wild West, with far fewer safety protocols, and even less accountability. And I think a lot of our school folks are growing incredibly frustrated with what seems like at least a bit of a double standard, in terms of enforcement. It has been a major frustration of our schools. We know that kids are going out of state, each and every week, playing in defined competition, and ironically, our kids are safest in our programs. If we could allow competition, what that would do in our four winter sports is that would keep kids here. That the competition would be a heck of a lot more local than what it is right now, and if we’re really serious in our state, about ether getting kids back in buildings for in-person education, or for districts that are already doing it, keeping in-person learning going, it would seem to me that the most sense would be to allow school sports to happen, because kids are going to find the activity. Why wouldn’t we keep them as local as possible, with trained, professional educators who have to follow some pretty strict safety procedures put in place, and ultimately are accountable to athletic directors, principals, superintendents and boards of education? That’s something that we hear on a daily basis from our schools. 

Limited team membership rule prohibits students from competing in the same season with non-school teams. Has there been any consideration of suspending rule for winter or spring? 

UYL: There’s been conversation, but I think the previous answer, about where we’re really putting our focus, which is to get those in decision-making positions to get our kids to compete and play now — let’s allow competition, but let’s keep it as safe and local as possible, for now. That’s where we’re putting our focus right now. When our board did meet earlier this week, we did talk about limited team membership. We’re in very frequent communication with our board, and that’s something that we’ll continue to look at, as things continue to evolve and change.

Has the governor’s office or MDHHS given MHSAA a reason why it has no seat at the table for decision making?
UYL: Not from the governor’s office. And, like I said, we’ve had more communication with the director of Health and Human Services than we had with the previous director over the previous four months. In terms of a seat at the table, the way that I feel like we’ve been included the last four days I feel like is a huge step in the right direction, and I’m grateful to the new director for that. And again, at some point, communication is good, but don’t be mistaken that we’re also here pressing for answers and decisions, as quickly as possible. 

Do you think the delay in the winter seasons is tied to anything to do with the rapid testing, and do schools need to get rapid tests in their hands, or can winter sports take place without?

UYL: We’re hoping that they can take place without the rapid tests. Again, when you look at the other states, no one is rapid testing. … What we heard during the pilot program is what a valuable resource these rapid tests were, that they’re in demand in a lot of other sectors right now in our state. Everybody needs to know that there are 60,000 winter athletes. It’s about 40,000 basketball players, we’re talking about 9,000 wrestlers, about 8,000 competitive cheerleaders, and about 2,700-3,000 ice hockey players. Again, those are all ballpark figures, but we’re talking 60,000 kids. Remember, in the pilot program, you were talking 5,300 individuals. The scale of rapid tests, that could be done quite easily with 5,300 kids. When you take that now to 60,000 individuals, and you’re talking about testing multiple times during the week, that obviously brings about a number of logistical challenges. Based on what that showed from that test group of 5,300, we’re talking about negative test rates of 99.8 percent. I think if the numbers would’ve been a little worse with the rapid testing, if there were more positive cases out there than what we believed, we might look at testing a little differently. That’s what we hear from the 38 other states. Their numbers of COVID cases and positive test rates since they have been indoors competing since November and that is information that we continue to share.

How late can winter championships be pushed back? How might that impact spring championships?

UYL: That, we’re literally taking on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. A lot of our schools have schedules in place that were based on hockey games starting Feb. 1, basketball games starting on Feb. 4, wrestling and competitive cheer beginning on Feb. 8 — we’re not to those points yet. That should be where I think our schools continue to keep their schedules, and here over the coming days — I realize that first key date is next week — but we need to see where the conversations continue to go, and what our decision-makers ultimately decide. 

Has there been any expression of desire or likelihood from MDHHS in extending the rapid testing pilot program to winter or spring sports? Should schools be talking about it? How cost prohibitive is it?

UYL: We haven’t had any conversations about testing for winter sports or spring sports, to date. Certainly what that order does allow is for contact sports to go on, if a school follows the rapid testing program. What they have heard loud and clear is the concern that we have: The schools that can out and can afford to buy the test, they could be able to go forward and play, and those schools that don’t have those financial means would get left behind. The thing with testing, if it would be on a school-to-school basis, that could create some real issues with inequity, and that’s something that again, we want all of our schools to be on an equal footing. We believe that, given the data and the numbers, that it is safe to play, and it is safe to play now, and that is where our focus continues to be.

Given hint of what numbers/negativity rates need to be?

UYL: I have not been given a number in any way, shape or form. 

Are there concerns about the numbers of basketball officials with the girls and boys tournaments running at the same time, and the does the potential overlap with spring become a challenge?

UYL: Officials are always a challenge for us. Especially with what had been happening for the last four years, pre-COVID, our numbers had been going down, because frankly in good economic times, that’s when we struggle with the overall number of officials. Our officials numbers go up and down — there’s a very close correlation with good economic times. Now, we are going to get some new officials here coming out of COVID, just given the economic impact this has had on so many. There are going to be a lot of individuals who are looking for an additional job, some extra income to pick up, but the problem — yes, we’re going to get some new officials here in the short-term, but it takes time to get them trained, and prepared and up to speed. Schools are going to need to be creative. I know at the varsity level in many corners of our state, three-person crews have become the norm. There are going to be some parts of our state that, given the number of officials, will be working with two-person crews. Or, if it’s a doubleheader, one varsity game followed by another — or the case of a JV game followed by a varsity game — where in the past they were bringing different crews of officials, it may be a case now where you’re going to have the same crew of officials working doubleheaders or back-to-back games. That’s right now something we’re looking at for all of our districts, for basketball week. If we were able to go with three-person crews, it may be a case that on at least the first two days, Monday and Wednesday, when you have the most games going on, very well in a gym you could have the same three-person crew working both games of a doubleheader. That’s something a lot of officials have done for a long time, in certain parts of our state. Just know that when it comes to officials, like everything else, we’ll continue to be as creative as we can, to make schedules work.

From conversations with MDHHS, is there any potential of starting winter contact season prior to Feb. 21?

UYL: That’s part of the discussion. The ball is in MDHHS’ court, and we’ll see what kind of answer we get to that question. 

Some have asked why Mark didn’t take part in Thursday’s legislative hearings. Reason?

UYL: Mark doesn’t have a problem being quoted, or getting my face and our message out there. If I would have testified, that would’ve potentially taken a spot that a school superintendent, a school administrator, a parent or most important, a student-athlete. Our message — again, we have a megaphone, and much of that is due to your help, in the media to be able to get out the numbers and the data. We did have one of our board members yesterday that did testify, but again, we just felt like it would’ve been more powerful, coming from someone working in a school each and every day, working with kids directly each and every day. So certainly those that testified, we had several that reached out, and they had asked for some data, and we had shared that. Yesterday’s focus, that was a chance for other voices to be heard, and I thought everyone — the school folks, the parents and the student athletes really won the day as well.

Are you aware of the ‘Let Them Play’ lawsuit being held back because of negotiations with MDHHS?

UYL: I have no information on that whatsoever. That’s new information to me.

Will masks be required in game-play when winter sports start, and will fans be allowed in gyms?

UYL: In terms of masks, I can answer that just based on the current order. If we’re able to go forward, and the current order stands, then the answer to masks would be yes. Spectators have been spelled out. That actually got some increased definition last week Friday. Currently, when it comes to winter, I believe the order sets that limit at 100. It does talk about if an arena is larger than 10,000 people, that number could be as high as — I think — 500, but those spectator answers — again, our focus is on getting our kids playing first, and then once they get the go-ahead for that, then the spectator guidance will be based on whatever the current order is.

What would happen if you simply ignored the governor’s and MDHHS’ orders and began winter contact sports season now?

UYL: As an organization of member schools, many of which are public schools, that would put — ignoring current law — would put many of our school districts’ in a difficult position. As much as we’ve been frustrated with the way that things have gone, really since August, at the end of the day, we’ve had to follow — up until October — the governor’s orders. The same goes for MDHHS emergency orders.

Reaction to Gov. Whitmer’s statement on TV that winter sports could resume in weeks or days?

UYL: Really no reaction.

Is this an all-or nothing situation? Is a sport like wrestling considered more at-risk? Do all four winter contact sports need to be given the green light by the MDHHS for the MHSAA to proceed? 

UYL: Well, right now, the limitations that MDHHS has created have specifically identified the four contact sports, so all of our communication right now is focused on those four sports. Remember that boys swimming and diving, bowling and gymnastics, those are all a full-go right now, those three other winter sports. Right now, it’s been MDHHS that’s put the contact sports in kind of their own category or group, and all of our conversation and push is focusing on all four of those sports, as a group. None of those have been pulled out individually.

Any consideration for allowing schools to play outside of the state?

UYL: We’re trying to do everything that is responsible. For schools to have kids in the building during the school day, competition needs to be local, it needs to be within our state. While going out of state might makes sense for Monroe or Ontonagon, those schools near the boarders, what’s Alpena supposed to do? You talk about putting some schools at a real disadvantage if you say ‘You can go ahead and play, but it has to be out of state,’ the inequity that’s going to create, based on where schools are geographically, it brings on a whole new set of problems. We feel like the best tack here is to advocate for letting all schools play, now, in our state, rather than have folks fleeing to the three bordering areas every weekend.