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MHSAA’s Uyl optimistic high school sports will be able to resume next week, but still waiting on edge of his seat to find out for sure

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, December 4, 2020, 5:29 pm

If you’re waiting on the edge of your seat to see whether or not high school sports are going to be able to resume next week, at the expiration of the three-week pause, you’re not alone.

The head of the Michigan High School Athletic Association has a similar perch on his chair.

MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl said in Friday’s appearance on the “Huge Show” radio program that he had gotten little indication, since a virtual meeting with the governor’s office last week, which way the decision-makers across town might go when that initial three weeks expires next Tuesday, and what that will mean for high school athletics.

“Since we’ve had that conversation, like everybody, we’re just kind of on the edge of our seats here, waiting for what happens next. I watched the Governor’s press conference yesterday, and was hoping to get some kind of a sign or indication, and it appears that they’re holding that information very closely (to the vest),” Uyl said. “Like everybody, we’ve got our plan in place, we’re ready to go if we get the chance to move forward next Wednesday, and we’re just literally on the edge of our seats, waiting for what our government leadership is going to tell us.”

In conjunction with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced a three-week pause back on Nov. 15, to start on Nov. 18, and run through Dec. 8, pushing the majority of the state back to phase 2 of the recovery plan. That included a three-week break in both in-person education for high school students, as well as a temporary shutdown of educational athletics. 

While Gov. Whitmer indicated as recently as Thursday that an extension of the pause might be “sadly possible” in order to continue to fight the spread of COVID-19, Uyl remains optimistic that it won’t impact high school sports. 

“I’m an optimist by nature, so that’s where I’ll continue to live, both mentally and physically. I just, again if we’re following the science and data, we’ve shown that our fall activities can be done safely,” he said. “If we need to continue to play with masks on, we’ll continue to play with masks on. If it means that, to get the chance to play, we have to do it with no spectators — which certainly is not my first choice, but if that’s the reality, that’s what we’re going to do. I’m just going to continue to be optimistic and hopeful that we’re going to get that chance next Wednesday.”

Part of that optimism stems from productive conversations the MHSAA team had with the governor’s office since the institution of the three-week pause. Uyl himself wrote a letter to Gov. Whitmer, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun and MDHHS director Robert Gordon, stressing the data the MHSAA had collected on the safety of high school sports. 

“I can share that I wrote a letter to Gov. Whitmer, to Dr. Khaldun, to (Michigan Department of) Health and Human Services director Robert Gordon back on Nov. 18, in which we really laid out our case in a proposed plan to finish out three fall tournaments in December. That’s a week of volleyball, that’s our final meet in girls swimming and diving, and our last three weeks in our football playoffs. With that letter, we were able to share all the data — because again, if we’re following the science and the data, all the data from the fall showing that 95 percent-plus of our teams in football and volleyball were able to play every week of the season. That number was 98 percent plus in all of the other of our fall sports. … We’re putting our kids here first, and if the science and the data says that the kids aren’t getting this or spreading this during the school day, at practice or during games, if the issues are crowds and gatherings, then this plan allows kids to play safely and also addresses the concerns about crowds and gatherings,” Uyl said. “We sent the letter, and to Gov. Whitmer’s office’s credit, they reached out immediately. We had a video conference last week. We were able to lay out the rationale, share some of the science and the data. Some of the members of her office asked some real good questions, so there was a real good dialogue.”

That written proposal was to advocate for allowing athletics to resume on Dec. 9, with both competitions to finish up the three remaining fall tournaments — volleyball, girls swimming and diving and football — as well as begin winter practices across the board. 

It also stressed the data the MHSAA had collected, with regard to the spread of COVID-19 — or seeming lack thereof — during high school athletics. 

“That’s the case we were trying to make. We’ve been doing this safely since August. The numbers and the data show that. I mean, everything that I’m hearing. We haven’t had much communication at all with our state health department, so that’s kind of forced us to go out and build some new friendships and alliances with some new county departments heads. I’ve found that four of them have a good sports background, they know how our world works — and over and over and over again, I’m hearing that the school day isn’t the issue, sports isn’t the issue. It’s the social gatherings, it’s the groups getting together — especially indoors, closer than six feet for an extended period of time, with no masks. And all of our safety protocols address that,” Uyl said. “Again, if we’re going to follow the science and the data, the science and the data, at least in the athletic world that we’ve seen in our state since August, would lead to us getting that chance to give our kids that closure.”

Uyl also pointed out the possibility that athletics could resume, while high schools remain in a virtual mode, noting that it’s much the same as when practices for the fall seasons started back in August, before the start of classes.

“I don’t even know that schools having to reopen has to necessarily be there. We had a lot of our schools back in August that started the school year virtually, but still allowed athletics to move forward, because that was a way they could bring kids back to campus in small, identifiable groups that were always with the same adults, in terms of their coaches — it wasn’t like they were rotating from class to class. I would agree that in normal times, the optics of not being able to have your entire student body back on campus, but still trying to play sports, in normal times that just doesn’t look right. But however, I think — and it’s a little bit what our government has done — they’ve tried to identify some parts of society to where if those activities can be done safely, go ahead. Other activities, we’ve gotta pause and hold off on those,” Uyl said. 

“Even if she (Gov. Whitmer) were to say, ‘OK, schools are going to remain closed to the whole student body until after the first of the year, as we try to hit the reset button,’ I think the argument could be made, ‘You know what? Let’s then give our kids one slice of normalcy, and let’s let this start of athletics to get going, finish fall in December, and start practices in December — which is really no different than allowing teams to congregate to practice and prepare for two or three weeks in December, leading to the restart of school, which might be face-to-face instruction, in January.’ That needs to be part of the metrics, as well, I think. Because really it’s not all that different — every year, you start practice for three to four weeks in August, and then school begins. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get that opportunity come next Wednesday.”

Best-case scenario, with the least impact on the ongoing schedule, is for the MHSAA to be able to finish its fall schedule now.

If it can’t? If athletics are halted until after Jan. 1? What then?

“Well, I’m not going to go too deep into that. We do have another plan. This goes back to March: Every plan you talk about, you’ve got two or three other options involved. If we’re not able to do anything until January, we’ll need to kind of go back to the drawing board, to say ‘OK, when can we finish volleyball, girls swimming and diving?’ And obviously football could not be played in our state in January or February. We then potentially look at a possible early spring finish, which nobody wants. I think for those three spots, if we’re able to finish in December, to give those kids the closure they deserve, that’s the best-case scenario. With our winter sports, if we’re not able to practice or do anything until January, what we then have to do is kind of retool our winter tournament dates,” Uyl said. 

“Because essentially, if we’re able to finish fall in December, winter gets completely pushed off until after the first of the year, then you’re left with two seasons left, and six months of the school year. You tweak things so winter can go January, February, finishing up their tournaments by the end of March, then our spring sports are looking at April, May and finishing up their tournaments by the end of June. Things could get kicked back just by a couple of weeks, but it makes all the dominos fall much easier if we can get fall completed here this current month, during December, and then we really turn our attention to doing everything we can to get winter and spring in, in the remaining six months of the school year, which I believe is very doable. I know the next few months of COVID is going to be very challenging, but I know the talk of vaccines being just around the corner, just hopeful that the calendar year of 2021 will give us some opportunities to get kids active and moving.”

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