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MHSAA’s Uyl explains decision to postpone football: ‘What we were getting from our schools … was really to pump the brakes’

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, August 17, 2020, 5:20 pm

Nearly everything put out by the Michigan High School Athletic Association at some point includes the reminder that it is a member-driven organization. 

And when the representatives of those members speak, those folks whose office is on Ramblewood Drive listen.

That doesn’t mean they don’t bear the brunt of the blowback, though.

When the MHSAA made the unpopular — yet unsurprising — announcement late Friday afternoon that this fall’s football season was being pushed back until the spring, the decision was a result of following what the members were saying, not some executive fiat.

Still, the guy making the announcement, executive director Mark Uyl, understood that he was going to catch a lot of the flack. 

“I don’t mind the being the windshield, and the person that a lot of the frustration gets directed toward. I’ve got broad shoulders and thick skin. That comes with the territory,” Uyl admitted Monday on an earlier-than-normal appearance on “The Huge Show,” which usually features his interviews with host Bill Simonson on Wednesdays.

“I get it. Sports, and when it comes to our kids, there’s a lot of emotion that gets tied to that. Certainly after the council meeting, when we decided to postpone football, it was incredibly disappointing, because I think myself and a lot of our board members had really hoped that sports would be part of the comeback this fall, and football would’ve been a big part of that. “Certainly disappointing — but not devastating. Devastating was last April into early May, when we had to cancel winter tournaments, and then completely cancel all of spring sports, and now you’re telling seniors that they’re done, with no closure, with no possibility, with no chance to finish your career on the field or on the track or on the court. I understand — and football probably gets more attention than it should. I completely understand the reaction that some folks will have, but you just hope here after a day or two that folks take a breath, and you can just step back a little bit, and see a little bit of the bigger picture.”

After one week of football teams practicing in helmets only, the MHSAA decided to pull the plug on attempting to get the sport in this fall, rather than continue to hew to its course — which had been, up until that point, wait, wait, wait, wait … and hope. 

“We certainly could’ve pushed forward with football. And what this fall would have looked like is it would not have included any of the things that ordinarily are connected to a Friday home football game. It would not have been the bands. Would not have included cheerleaders. It probably would not have included any spectators, including parents, and all off the different community groups that get touched by a Friday night football game,” Uyl explained. 

“In this weird atmosphere, we would’ve tried to have played, and then we would’ve had outbreaks. We surveyed our schools last week, and we had about 15 percent of our schools that have had at least one outbreak, and you can almost imagine that’s going to grow. Then you’d have a team playing a game, there’d be an outbreak, well than we can’t play for two weeks, and now there are other schools that play us that now have a hole in their schedule. This would be going on, week after week. And then the public would say, ‘Well why did you try to go ahead and play? You looked at the number of cases, and with kids getting back together, and you could’ve almost imagined this was going to happen, just by the nature of football, so why didn’t you wait until the spring?’ That’s how the argument would’ve gone. We got plenty of criticism of ‘Why did you make this decision at the end of a week of practice with helmets only?’ Well, part of it was that the guidance and direction we were getting was ‘OK, you may go ahead and start with helmets for the first week.’ If we would’ve not have even started, and just said ‘Nope, we’re going to wait for the spring,’ then those same people who criticized … we would’ve gotten criticized for not even going that first week, and getting some data, and getting some feedback from our schools.”

The feedback from the schools was the key to the decision, Uyl said. The MHSAA sent out a questionnaire to every high school athletic director, and got a ton of response.

“We heard back from over 600 of our athletic directors last week Thursday and into Friday, after we’d had three days of practice under our belt,” Uyl said. “Certainly this wasn’t a decision where it was my idea or our board’s idea. We were continuing to get input and feedback as an association of member schools, it was coming from our members.”

The first data point the MHSAA was able to glean was how exactly schools are returning to the education portion. Roughly 20 percent were beginning in an online-only format, and roughly 20 percent were beginning in-person only, with the remaining 60 percent some hybrid combination of the two. 

The second part was asking whether or not the member schools wanted to move forward with the sports at each of the different levels. 

The response was roughly 90-10 in favor of going forward with low-risk sports like cross country, golf and tennis. Moderate risk sports like swimming, volleyball and soccer had a 75-25 approval rating.

Football, though? The response was favorable … but just barely.

“Today (Monday) would’ve been the first day in pads. Many of our schools did report a positive first week, with helmets only, but the push to move forward with football was only 60-40. So, yeah, it was slightly in favor, but probably the thing that was most telling was the comments we were getting from our schools — especially those schools that had answered the question yes. There’s just a ton of unknown and uncertainly out there,” Uyl said.

“Folks have wanted to point out all the travel baseball that has been going on all summer, and I get it, but we didn’t have nine players from one team crashing into nine players from another team, and are unpiling after every single pitch, and then lining up to do it again. That facemask-to-facemask contact that players are going to have in the offensive and defensive lines. It’s a completely different dynamic that what you have in a kid playing right field or shortstop, being able to distance in some of those other sports. 

“What we were getting from our schools, relative to football, was really to pump the brakes.”

Uyl demurred when asked if there was pressure from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office to cancel football.

“Pressure? … No. But yet we were getting … there were lots of conversations that were ongoing, will continue to be ongoing. So, certainly the information we were getting from their office, the information we were getting from our state health department officials was part of the equation,” Uyl said.

Key to moving forward with the moderate-risk sports will be clarification from the governor’s office on when indoor facilities can be used. Boys soccer, Uyl said, is a virtual go.

“With soccer, it’s really just matter of setting a first date of competition. By our normal calendar, they could begin competing games this week on Friday. When our board meets on Wednesday morning, we just want to see if there’s comfort to stay with that date, or if we simply allow a few more days of practice, and competition or games don’t start until sometime next week. I would imagine the soccer conversation is really going to be pretty straightforward, and that’s just about setting what date the competition is going to begin,” he said. 

“With the volleyball and swim, that’s dependent on Gov. Whitmer opening up indoor school facilities. Right now, there’s conflicting language in two of her executive orders, 142 and 160, and we’ve been told that that conflicting information, about what schools can and can’t be used for currently is going to be resolved as well as speaking directly to when can school gyms be open for athletic practice, and when can indoor school pools be open for practice and then competition? 

“That’ll be the question when the board gets together: Do we stay with the original calendar dates or, given the little bit of a delay getting indoors, do we push it back? Everything we can play safely this fall, we intend to do, because then that just means less activity that we have to find windows for later in the school year.”

The MHSAA’s Representative Council will meet on Wednesday to determine how those sports go forward — or whether any of the moderate-risk sports need to be flipped to the spring with football.

It will also be the first time that they truly begin to delve into some of the contingency plans, to map out how football may look in the spring. 

“Obviously, the Upper Peninsula has its own challenges, because what you can do early to mid-March here in the Lower Peninsula often isn’t the case up north. That’s why the board has representation from both peninsulas — its superintendents and ADs,” Uyl said. “We’ve been working on a lot these models already — we’ve had them in our back pockets for the ‘just in cases.’ Come Wednesday, we’ll be able to take three or four of those models, put them in front of our board — and we may not be making final decisions on Wednesday for later on in the school year, but we’ll certainly narrow down what our options are, and get feedback from our schools, and see where we go from there.”

How would it likely look?

Well, you’d likely have to play a shortened football season in March and April, perhaps moving boys basketball (hockey and wrestling are both typically over by March 1) back a week, and baseball forward by a week or so to fit it in.

“Practice probably starts right around March 1. What that football season looks like: Certainly it’s not a nine-game season, it’s going to be shorter. Then at the end of that regular season, is there some kind of a way where you can do some sort of a tournament, where everybody gets in? Or maybe it’s six regular-season games, or five regular-season games, against a round-robin. I could see something where we would put schools in groups of six, and then your five-regular-season games are against the other five teams in your geographic grouping, and, from there, you play a tournament out. But it will not be a nine-game regular season followed by five or six weeks of a tournament,” Uyl said. 

“Essentially where football would go would be March and April, and then with a tournament experience going in April, and finishing up in early May. Now what our spring sports, in that case, would do, would be you’d certainly want to create some windows to where your multi-sport athlete could still do both in the spring.”

On the front end, there’s nothing from stopping the MHSAA from moving up winter sports to start earlier — and then end earlier.

“The issues here are not winter sports — we’re going to have more flexibility here on the front end. If we can get those concluded in late February, or the start of March, it’s going to give those winter athletes that do play football a chance to do so, a chance to do it on time. I think we can do this pretty smartly, where it’s a minimal impact on our spring kids, as well,” Uyl said. “Basketball, even in normal times, what we’ve heard is that basketball season is too long. What this might do is give us an opportunity to say ‘OK, because we’re going to have an early ending fall with no football — it’s going to end earlier than it ever has before — why not then instead of boys basketball starting in the middle of November, why not start them the first of November, which would put the finals right around the first of March.”

And Uyl has said all summer that most of the feedback he got after the spring cancellations was that people were more than willing to go into late June and July to get a season in.

“If you can get your tournament started in that last weekend in April, you’re really going to have every week that goes by, you’re going to have fewer and fewer football kids continuing to play. And then if you take your spring championships, and maybe each of your spring finals — you keep practice (start) where it is, but maybe your finals you just move a week later, so you’re still done by the Fourth of July, you look at the weeks on the calendar, and it’s like ‘Yeah, there’s really a pretty healthy season here for kids that want to play football,’ as well as for that same group of kids that are also spring athletes. It’s going to to look at a little differently, and it’s going to be a bit unique — but I think if you look at a spring like that, and then you ask our seniors this past spring, which one they would prefer, and I think they would take the unique spring with a lot of activity over the one that we just all lived through,” Uyl said.

“Softball could certainly start on time, and end as it’s currently scheduled, and maybe the baseball season, we just have to move the year-end tournament back one week. I think if you ask folks — we’re not asking you to go to the end of July — but if you take our year-end tournaments which were scheduled on June 19, and could we just go one more week later, allowing for a little bigger window for those kids who play both to do both, I think asking for a one-week longer season I think is a pretty reason option for most folks. …

“If we have time, and we’re able to get creative and get kids the experience that, frankly, they deserve, that’s what we’re going to do, and that’s going to be our plan moving forward.”

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