• Michigan

MHSAA’s message of return to play loud and clear across state: ‘We really feel like our message is really resonating right now’

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, January 27, 2021, 6:09 pm

Just based on the volume — and VOLUME — of responses from across the state to Friday’s decision to further delay the start of winter contact sports, Mark Uyl knows that the high school sports community has gotten the message.

What the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s executive director doesn’t know is whether or not the message coming out of his organization’s headquarters 1661 Ramblewood Drive is being heard six miles away at the South Grand Avenue headquarters of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

There are indications, though, that — given the recent change in leadership at MDHHS — it at least has a chance of being heard. 

“We really feel like our message is really resonating right now,” Uyl said in Wednesday afternoon’s appearance on The Huge Show radio program, noting not only all the personal testimonials from winter athletes, but also the fact that the “Let Them Play” movement has gotten traction in the state legislature, as well. 

The ‘Let Them Play’ organization that set up rallies in the summer has one set for the capital on Saturday. The message has been amplified by the outspoken advocacy of a slew of school administrators across the state— led most notably by Dr. Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of the state’s largest school district, the Detroit Public Schools Community District — as well as the coaches and players themselves. 

“The media articles, going back to Friday, telling some very personal stories of winter athletes and their struggles … I know that in both the (Michigan) House (of Representatives) and Senate tomorrow, they have hearings scheduled in both chambers of the legislature, where I know that dozens of coaches and kids and parents and families are going to be be able to talk about their experiences, and their frustrations. It’s just a matter of us continuing to push the information, to push the data, and trying to get that in the hands of those that are making the decisions right now. That’s what our (Representative) Council talked about today, and that’s going to continue to be our push, every minute that we have available to us each day.”

The Representative Council met Wednesday and voted to affirm that those winter sports still in limbo by the most recent epidemic order extension — boys and girls basketball, hockey, wrestling and competitive cheer — will begin whenever the MDHHS allows it. Friday morning, that goalpost was moved back to at least Feb. 21. 

The vote, in itself, wasn’t news. 

The biggest item of interest from Uyl’s appearance on the radio show — which was preceded by a news release from the MHSAA, continuing to keep the issue front and center in everyone’s mind — might have been when the executive director was talking about giving the MHSAA’s data to the MDHHS. 

“It has (been delivered). I’m hopeful … listeners know that I’m a straight-shooting, transparent person. I can say that with the change in leadership going back to last Friday that already, we have noticed a drastic change in the communication and openness to dialogue. Our communication has been as good in the last three days than it’s been in the last three months. I can let everybody know that we have again provided this data to those in leadership positions, certainly with (MD)HHS, some of those faces are different than they were last week,” Uyl said. “Again, just trying to share all of the data, all of the metrics, going back to August, and those are the channels that we’re aggressively working through right now.”

Robert Gordon abruptly resigned as MDHHS director last Friday afternoon — hours after the most recent extension of the epidemic order, with respect to high school sports — and was replaced by Elizabeth Hertel (pictured), who had been the chief deputy director for administration, where external relations and communications were under her purview. Hertel played high school tennis at Rockford. 

The data shared with the MDHHS is the same data that the MHSAA has been expounding on for months. 

“We really feel like our message is really resonating right now. All of the data we’ve talked about for months, really going back to August, and highlighting all of our fall teams — both indoor and outdoor, contact and non-contact — were able to compete each week at a rate of 95 percent-plus,” Uyl said.

The MHSAA also has the data from the rapid-testing pilot program, set up by the MDHHS itself to help finish the winter postseasons in volleyball, girls swimming and football. 

A total of 5,376 people — athletes, coaches, cheerleaders, team personnel — were tested, and nearly 30,000 rapid antigen tests administered over the month of the pilot program. Just 57 positive tests — roughly one percent of the tested population — came back, and the rate of negative tests overall was 99.8 percent. 

“Folks need to understand that, going back to November, other states are currently playing winter contact sports, as of this week. There are 38 states around the country who are doing this, and our three border states that have a direct border with us, in Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin have been practicing and competing in winter sports, going all the way back to all the way to Dec. 1. You just look at those three states, as well as Michigan … you look at where our data was, say Nov. 15, and you look at what that data is in those states now, a little bit more than two months later, and in all four states, the data — thankfully — is in a much better place than what it was in mid-November,” Uyl said. 

“Daily new cases per 100K went from 67 back in November, we’re now at 21 today. The positive test rate back in mid-November, 13.5, to today it’s at 6.1. Those are all very encouraging metrics. The thing is, you look at those same metrics in Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio, and those are down as well. So the argument that winter indoor contact sports are somehow increasing the numbers in at least our three bordering states — and you can really take that across the 35 other states that are fully participating in winter sports — the data is not suggesting that there is that spike. 

“We’re seeing more and more people talking about this. I think you’ve got more and more people realizing that we have been ready since November. As soon as Health and Human Services says that it’s time to move forward, and we can begin contact practices and competition for the four sports that are currently kind of in the holding pattern, we are going to be ready to do so.”

The ‘if not …’ is readily apparent, and the same thing that the MHSAA has been arguing all along: If athletes can’t compete here, they’ll go somewhere that they can compete. That will likely end up being out of state. 

The ask is a simple one: The MHSAA is trying to get the MDHHS to walk back its extension for the ‘contact’ winter sports. 

“Nothing yet. But for us to just say, ‘Well, the new order is pushed back to Feb. 21, and it’s just what we’re going to wait around for,’ that is not our approach right now. We are trying to get the data, the information to those decision-makers, along with an ask that the timetable — because remember, we still have in our schools a lot of schedules that were built based on games starting in hockey on Feb. 1, and basketball on Feb. 4, and wrestling and competitive cheer on Feb. 8,” Uyl said. “That is currently our ask, and we’ll see if we get some reconsideration with the some of the change in leadership at Health and Human Services.”

There is a second ask, too, though.

An ask for the WHY portion.

If they can’t play yet, what do the numbers need to be so they CAN?

So far, the only indication Uyl has gotten was concerns of the new variant of the virus that’s shown up in Washtenaw County, and helped shut down sports at the University of Michigan. 

“[That is] what’s been our biggest concern, going back months ago, even in the fall, when football was put on pause. The thing that we’ve wanted, all the way back to Day 1 is, OK, when we’re not able to play, simply tell us what the numbers are that will stop us from playing. Or if the numbers reach a certain level, this is what would pause. More importantly, especially for our winter community right now, is if we’re not able to fully go right now, tell us what the numbers have to be, in order to return to activity,” Uyl said. 

“I think we in the educational space are pretty reasonable people. We are folks that, in school districts across our state, make data-driven decisions, decisions based on information that we have, and I think our question, really going back to Day 1, is just kinda tell us what the road-map is. When the numbers are between X and Y, you’re going to be able to play. And if the numbers reach this limit, here’s what’s going to happen. There just hasn’t been any of that. And I think the big reason many of us, our frustration is hitting a peak right now, we all heard, going back to the middle of November — and looking at where COVID cases were, and positive test rates, I think anybody who is reasonable can look at where were were in the middle of November and understand our state had to kind of go into a pause, and that was across the board, not just in athletics, but other things. Now when you fast forward a little bit over two months plus, and you see that our daily cases were a third of what they were, the positive test rates were half of what they were — we asked for a lot of shared sacrifice from our state to get those numbers back under control, to flatten the curve, get those numbers trending in the other direction. And I certainly think that we’ve done so. The data suggests that. Our ask right now is just tell us what the numbers are that will either allow us to play — and if they reach a certain level, where we have to pause, just tell us that, as well. I think with that bit of information, people could kind of understand ‘OK, here are the rules of the game, and here’s how we’re going to be able to move forward. Here’s WHEN we’re going to be able to move forward.’ And I think the thing that has increased the frustration among so many in our state, there just hasn’t been a clear plan forward.”