Will winter sports start on time? MHSAA plans to give guidance to schools after Thursday’s meeting of Representative Council
While the fall sports are beginning to successfully wrap up for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the state has put into question whether the winter seasons will start on time, or be pushed back.
The association plans to give schools guidance on that subject after Thursday’s meeting of the MHSAA Representative Council, executive director Mark Uyl said on Wednesday’s appearance on “The Huge Show” radio program.
“The biggest item on the agenda is going to be some guidance for our winter sports. The first thing that we’re going to have to decide is, do we start practice and competition on time? If that makes sense. Does a pause or a delay make sense? My fear … is if we delay the start of winter practice until let’s say it was after the first of the year, well then you and I both know what will happen in November and December is the non-school world is going to swoop in, and they’re going to sign kids up for all sorts of basketball leagues and wrestling opportunities, and a seven-week short hockey season. So now, in the non-school space, you’ll have kids from different school districts, mixing with each other every single weeknight, and every single weekend,” Uyl said.
“I met with 10 intermediate school district superintendents (in Grand Rapids) last Friday, and certainly we all see the COVID numbers increasing, and from a superintendent perspective, they want to do everything to protect the in-person, on-site education that’s going on. So we actually had a good discussion that, while the delay of some winter sports does make some sense, it might make that task of continuing face-to-face education more difficult, if we create a brand-new window for kids to jump on all kinds of travel or club teams for six weeks or eight weeks, that’s going to make keeping schools open more challenging rather than less.”
Currently, practices for most of the 12 winter sports are slated to start in mid-November, with first contests early in December. Gymnastics is the first slated to start practice, on Oct. 26, followed by hockey on Nov. 2 and competitive cheer on Nov. 9.
Plan A would be for things to stay the same, with a Plan B moving the start of practices and competitions held until later — possibly as late as the start of the new calendar year.
“Or I could even see a scenario where we start sometime during the month of November, and maybe we see how practice goes for four or five weeks, then as everybody kind of heads off over the holidays, and you get those different family events, and travel and gatherings, then maybe does it make sense that all winter competition, that all kicks off maybe after Jan. 1? You start practice in November, you get a handle on a lot of the indoor challenges, and then games and competitions can begin after the first of the year — that will be something we’ll talk about (Thursday),” Uyl said.
Regardless of when competitions begin, the number of spectators allowed will continue to be a discussion. The current maximum for indoor events is 20 percent of the fixed seating capacity of the venue (25 percent in Regions 6 and 8, which encompass Northern Michigan and the UP), with a maximum of 500.
“I think a big part of the conversation for winter has to involve spectators. Yup, current regulations allow up to 500 indoors, but what we’ve heard from several of our athletic directors, if we are able to start winter on time, and we’re having to manage all of the challenges that come with indoor activity, in terms of locker room, and a freshman to a JV to a varsity basketball game, in terms of moving people in and out, you know what? Maybe until up to Jan. 1, it’s with no spectators,” Uyl said. “Or we go back to maybe say two spectators per participant. If this is really about kids getting a chance to play, then maybe we start the winter season out with very limited spectators, kind of create some incentives for people to do the right things, and then as the winter progresses, and the numbers hopefully begin to trend in a more positive direction for us, then we can look to increasing the number of spectators.”
The executive director noted that the biggest advantage the association has now over its decision making back in the summer, for fall sports, is the knowledge of how their policies were put into practice this fall.
“I do think … we were pretty good students during the fall, to where a lot of our plans leading into the fall, it was a lot of speculation, it was a lot of common-sense things. Well what we now know, going through a fall girls swim season, about what should be the limitations be for boys swim — what should the pool deck look like? What should the distancing guidelines look like? That’s gonna help us. I think some of the lessons learned from volleyball, in terms of restricting the number of teams at a tournament down, how the in and out of gyms has worked,” Uyl said. “I think a lot of lessons from fall sports, especially the indoor sports are certainly going to be part of our winter guidance, as we get going. With anything, I think the more experience you get, the better you’re going to be at it. Just some of the great unknowns have gone away.”
One of the biggest takeaways from the fall, for Uyl at least, is that — statistically speaking — most of the spread of the virus associated with school activities hasn’t been in the school buildings or athletic facilities, but in tacked-on social events afterward.
“What’s interesting is during the fall, we’re seeing incredibly low numbers of COVID transmission at school during the school day, after school at practice and certainly after school during athletic competitions. We’re just not seeing it. However, where we are seeing things come up, it’s the fifth-quarter parties after the football game on Friday night, to where dozens of parents want to get together and watch the scores, and invite their kids along, and that’s where you’re getting these indoor social events that are serving as these chances for the virus to spread,” Uyl said. “It’s not just practicing, and doing all the right stuff during practice and games, but ‘Let’s just get back to normal, and let’s schedule a whole slew of team dinners, and team bonding stuff over the weekend.’ Well, it’s all the stuff connected to sports — not the athletic activity — that’s creating right now some of the challenges.”
Uyl used the example of an irate, yet well-intentioned parent calling to complain that this year’s football playoffs won’t be introduced by a selection show — something that really isn’t needed, with everyone in 11-player football making the field, anyway — because it was ‘tradition’ to have a social event to watch the brackets being revealed.
“As I’m sitting with this (phone call), I’m thinking ‘This is exactly the problem.’ It’s not the football game on Friday night, and the practice all week, but it’s these kind of social events, connected to football, that everybody thinks ‘Well, since we’re playing, we can just go back to normal, and ignore all the data and all the trends right now.’ A well-intentioned parent, but he kind of made the argument for me, about all the reasons we’re trying to eliminate those kind of events, that can derail our seasons,” Uyl said. “The team meals and the get-togethers and the social stuff, that needs to go on the back burner. We need to hit the pause button on that stuff, because what you’re really doing is jeopardizing our kids being able to complete a season in the fall, and to start and get a season going in the winter. I just thing all of us, in light of the COVID numbers, it’s just a good time to kind of put the most important thing back as the most important thing, and it’s doing what we can to make sure our kids can keep playing.”
In fall championship news, Uyl noted that the door wasn’t closed on using Ford Field for the football finals, but nothing had been determined yet. As has been noted and reported before, not using Ford Field may end up with either neutral or home sites for all eight finals in 11-player football.
“We’re still talking with Ford Field. I am optimistic that Ford Field could be the destination for 11-player finals. We’ve got to wait on a few things. You know, the Lions don’t return home until early November. We’re going to see what that looks like, in terms of allowing in potentially some friends and families of the Lions players, and what that could look like. We have not closed the door on our championships being at Ford Field that first weekend of December, but part of it is we’re kind of waiting on the Lions, for them to announce kind of what their home games in early November are going to be,” Uyl said. “I realize that everyone would’ve loved an answer to this question two weeks ago, as would I, but we’ll just keep communicating and continue to keep our fingers crossed that we’ll have something to announce here in the next week or so.”