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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’

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, April 3, 2020, 4:58 pm

It hasn’t even been two full school years since Mark Uyl inherited the big office on Ramblewood Drive, taking over the role of executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association from longtime boss Jack Roberts.

But the former assistant director was facing a decision this week that will likely be the most weighty of his tenure in the big seat: Whether or not to continue to try to hold out hope that the remainder of the 2019-20 sports calendar could be played out.

A little less than 24 hours after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order, closing schools for the remainder of the academic year to help fight the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that the answer was almost a foregone conclusion: No, it cannot.

“It didn’t surprise us, just because you hear the news in our state, and you look at the numbers of cases — of positive cases and deaths — and they’re growing, especially in the Metro Detroit area … I mean, it’s staggering to see the number of people and families that are being affected. As much as we’re all invested in sports, especially in the school sports, when you see that absolute human tragedy playing out in hospitals in the Metro Detroit area and other parts of our state, it just really became a matter of you need to put the most important things first, remember the big picture,” Uyl said. “We need to get everybody here to follow all of these social distancing guidelines so we can hopefully dream of some sense of normalcy, once we get into the summer months. Because I think everybody’s pretty much in agreement that the April and May that we have in front of us will be unlike any of our lifetimes.”

Knowing that the decision to cancel the remaining winter tournaments and all of spring sports would crush the hopes of a senior class clinging to any possibility, Uyl and the MHSAA made the tough call early Friday afternoon.

No more games until the fall.

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RELATED: MHSAA officially cancels spring and winter sports, putting an end to the 2019-20 athletic year

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“Absolutely heartbreaking. If there was something that really kept me going, and our staff going the last three weeks, since all of our lives have really just been completely spun sideways, it’s been the kids in the class of 2020. To know that they’re going through the spring of not being able to experience all of those normal, last senior things — whether that’s prom, whether that’s being an awards assembly, even just being the little simple things, the last game, the last concert, that last whatever,” Uyl said. 

“We have a lot of schools right now that don’t know when they’re going to have their commencement or graduation ceremonies. So it was those senior kids that really drove us to continue to draw up these contingency plans and concepts and ideas — maybe if we get an opportunity, here’s a way that these kids could end their career on the court, on the ice, on the mat, on whatever surface that they play. I can tell you the most heartbreaking thing once the decision was finally made today, knowing the impact it’s going to have not just on all kids, but our seniors — for a lot of them, this was the last thing that was just kind of hanging out there as just maybe the opportunity for some sort of athletic experience this year.

“Like I said, we’ve tried to be completely up front and transparent with our plans the last three weeks, letting folks know that was a real possibility that we were moving toward, and then with the governor’s order, and some of the other data, it just doesn’t look like it’s going to change in the near future, my heart absolutely breaks for kids in the class of 2020.”

Uyl joined STATE CHAMPS! LIVE less than an hour after the announcement to explain the rationale of the decision, one that he and the MHSAA staff spent 24 hours deliberating over. The executive committee and the representative council had held virtual meetings last week, going over contingency plans for what might happen this week.

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RELATED: Q&A with MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl, after Friday’s decision to cancel remaining 2019-20 sports seasons

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“Well, we knew that some sort of a decision was going to be coming from the governor’s office. We saw the reports like everybody else did early in the week, that the decision was coming to close schools … You then heard on Tuesday and Wednesday that may not be the case, that there were some parts of our state that obviously had been more significantly impacted than others, and then was there going to be more pressure in the out-state areas to not cancel through the end of the school year?” Uyl said. “But with Gov. Whitmer’s order yesterday to close schools through the remainder of the school year, what we did after that is we took our time, and we read completely through the order, we reached out to our contacts in the governor’s office, legislators, we convened a phone meeting of our executive committee, communicated with our 19-member representative council, which is our board of directors, and then we had several staff meetings where we really debated where we go next.”

The options were to cancel the remainder of the calendar — as other neighboring states had done on Thursday — or continue to hold out hope. Feedback from the member schools favored the former, rather than the latter choice.

“Really there were two pathways forward. One would have been the decision we made today, which was to cancel, and the other one was that we could’ve waited, and delayed. The feedback that we had been getting from schools since the order yesterday is our schools are really putting all of their effort, energy and focus for the next eight weeks or so, into providing online and distance education for kids,” Uyl explained “A lot of districts, we were hearing that the athletic director in the building were being reassigned here temporarily for the last two months of the school year to where they’re going to have a significant distance learning load and responsibility. What we got back from our schools is that they needed to be laser-focused — again, we’re school sports, so we’re academics first, sports second — they needed to be laser-focused on providing education for students over these last two months.”

The balance was between holding out hope, and creating false hope.

Throughout the last three weeks, since the winter postseasons were first put on ‘pause’ on March 13, the MHSAA had put together contingency plan after plan.

One if schools were back in April.

One if schools were back in May. 

Even one if nothing could happen until the summer.

All of those sort of became moot, once the governor’s executive order closed schools for the  remainder of the academic calendar.

“The other part of it was … even though we can see some of the models, and you can see some of the speculation that in early May, it might be better, it could be better, but the fact of the matter is, even with those models, we would’ve been back at the earliest by probably middle-to-late June at this point, with all of the logistical details that need to be pulled together. So really, the decision to close schools, along with an awfully long road ahead here to get back to even a semblance of normalcy was why (we made) the decision. We’ve tried to be transparent through this whole process, just to be completely up front with people. We’ve been completely up front and honest over the last three weeks,” Uyl said. “I think at some point, when you wait a couple more weeks, I think you do give some folks some false hope. Everything that we’re hearing, from government officials as well as health department officials, that the earliest — again, they are speculating and projecting here — would have been some sort of easing of social distancing regulations and the quarantine in early to mid June. And that could only get pushed back later, if the flattening of the curve comes later than they thought. So we certainly could’ve waited another two or three weeks, but at some point, I don’t think you’re being very honest and ingenuous with people. We were always working our way backwards through the calendars, and kind of (figuring) what was that last date we could go, and that’s why the decision was made today. Again, a huge domino in this decision was the governor’s decision to close all schools for the remainder of the school year.”

It was not a decision that was made lightly, nor was it one made in a vacuum. 

MHSAA leadership maintained constant contact with not only the governor’s office, as well as health departments around the state, but also with all of the constituent schools, as well as the associations of superintendents, principals and athletic directors.

Oh, and the emails. 

All of the emails.

“The strongest message over the last three weeks that we’ve gotten, as we tried to work through this, is just how much importance high school sports plays in the lives of thousands of people in our state. … I pride myself at being as approachable as I can possibly be, and I can tell you that I’ve literally, over the past three weeks, gotten over a thousand emails from folks with all kinds of different perspectives and input — certainly a good percentage of those were from the Class of 2020, who were imploring us to wait as long as possible before making any decision, and then part of this, too, we were in constant communication with our state government, with our state health departments — so to say ‘what kind of input went into this decision?’ — I’m not sure we’ve ever made a decision where we’ve more input from all of our constituency groups, those coaches that still had teams involved in the winter (postseason), from all of our spring community. So lots of input,” Uyl said. “At the end of the day, you’ve gotta take a step back, and look at the public health crisis that we’re in, with all of the government recommendations for how we can get back to some sense of normalcy … and then with the decision to close our schools, that’s ultimately how we landed where we did today.”

Certainly, Uyl and his staff will continue to monitor the situation, but it does not appear at this time that there will be any chance for a resumption of either the winter postseason or the spring season, in however an abbreviated form.

“You know, things would have to completely — literally a month from now, things would have to do another complete 180. I know there’s a saying ‘Never say never,’ but sitting where we are today, and knowing what we know today, the answer to that would be know. But again, if we’re sitting here a month from now, and the governor would somehow declare a completely all-clear — obviously you’re going to stay engaged, on a daily basis, but as we sit here today the answer would be no,” Uyl said of scenarios of playing in the summer, when buildings might be opened back up for summer school. “You never say complete never, but all the information we have in front of us right now is that things are not trending in that direction. But I think we would cross that bridge when we got to it — and believe me, if that bridge presented itself, it would be welcome by everybody right now. It’s been a tough three weeks, anxiety-wise, and keeping a good frame of mind for just about every American citizen.”

What’s next? The MHSAA will turn to look at the offseason and the fall, and try to give coaches, athletic directors and athletes some guidance on how to handle preparing for a fall — “For us to be back in August with business as usual is no guarantee at this point,” Uyl admitted — as the next step.

“The decision that has really driven everything up to today was whether or not we can play, and then next week is the time to now look forward to the 2020-21 school year, and start to take those questions, one-by-one,” Uyl said. “Our Representative Council, our 19-member board of directors, who are all from our schools, our last board meeting of the year is on May 3-4. We’re not sure if that will be a face-to-face meeting, or another virtual meeting, but when we meet that first weekend of May, our whole focus is going to be on ‘What does the summer look like?,’ in terms of those teams with summer 7-on-7 and team camps, and all of the training that goes in, leading into that fall season, we’ll begin to work through some of those details. Again, just hoping and praying that the number of people in our state that are in danger will be out of danger, and it will be that the curve has flattened, and the daily reports of the number of positive cases and tests, that that will become a thing of the past. We’re just hoping and praying that we can return to some sense of normalcy by August, and that’s where our focus is right now.”