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Playing Sports in Pandemic: States, Students, Families Take Different Approaches

By Nate Perry on September 29, 2020 hst Print

For those intimately connected to the world of high school sports, the summer months were topped with extra layers of anxiety and anticipation as states issued their plans for fall sports offerings. As decisions were made across the country, state associations, schools and individual families began searching for ways to make the most of their fall sports seasons in the altered landscape.

The various tiers of stakeholders produced solutions predicated on a number of motivations and unique factors. For example, some state associations could only investigate spring seasons for fall sports as a result of governor or state health department mandates. Schools with the option to play all or some of their sponsored sports had to weigh local positivity rates, population density, team size and transportation arrangements among a wide range of conditions. Families determined to see their student-athletes compete in a traditional fall season may have had to relocate in order to do so. And athletes looking to stay in shape or fill the competitive void without their sport of choice were led to explore alternative school-sponsored programs.

For state associations with control over their course of action, two of the most critical elements in the decision-making process were understanding the physical effects of the virus on each region and county in the state, and the potential negative mental health effects on student-athletes losing a second consecutive high school sports season. Guided by research and a priority to provide schools with as much flexibility as possible, the Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) and the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) opted to employ an “alternative season” format for fall sports.

“We had a couple counties that had elevated rates of infection and took very conservative approaches to mitigation; everything was shut down by their respective departments of health,” said Dave Anderson, WIAA executive director. “Yet, we also had counties that only had 10 or 12 confirmed cases since March. We felt we needed to think beyond what was normal and customary to find a plan that had the best chance of succeeding.”

Supported by analytics suggesting a fall season could be feasible in remote areas, which comprise sizable portions of Kansas and Wisconsin, the two organizations felt it was best to let seasons move forward while allowing schools the opportunity to play in the spring based on individual risk assessments.

“If we said we would delay everything to January or till the spring, it would have been risky because we don’t know what the virus situation is going to look like then – or even in these next few weeks or months,” Anderson said. ‘If you can play, play’ was the belief that drove our decision-making.”

Both Anderson and KSHSAA Executive Director Bill Faflick have implored their fall participants to adhere to recommended mitigation strategies and are confident schools will be cautious and responsible with their travel plans and size of events.

“We strongly encouraged local play within a community, within a league, within a geographic area,” Faflick said. “In terms of reducing crowd size, we have schools that have taken 8-team volleyball tournaments and split them into two quads, or taken cross country meets and broken them up into morning and afternoon sessions or Friday night and Saturday morning sessions. We’ve also seen staggered start times on the same course so everyone can compete in the same conditions. Schools have been creative in their methodologies.”

“Schools are doing a good job of recognizing regional exposure risks and what the differences might be should they venture outside their regions,” Anderson said. “Everybody knows what’s at stake. If schools want to have these competitions take place, they know they need to follow the precautions.”

The one major difference in the states’ plans lies in the possibility of hosting “culminating events” for fall sports in the spring. The WIAA will look to organize some type of postseason event in the spring should enough schools choose to postpone their fall activities, but Anderson said the expectation surrounding the grandeur of these events – for traditional and alternative seasons – needs to change, at least for this year.

“We are hopeful that we might be able to get some regional competition – postseason regional events,” he said. “If we can do more, if we can do it all, we will. We want to. But, given the realities and uncertainties of these times, we are trying to educate and prepare member schools, parents and others for culminating events that may not look like they did a year ago.”

Faflick expressed optimism that fall state championships could happen in Kansas but stated no complementary event would take place in the spring, regardless of the number of schools competing. He explained the difference in philosophy heading into the alternative season by underscoring one of the fundamental purposes of education-based athletics.

“If we get to the championships this fall – great, that’s fabulous – but the best part is kids are back in school, on school teams, connected to their teammates and coaches, and they are learning and growing through interscholastic activity participation. We know that can still happen in the spring, and we don’t need championships at the end to validate that.”

Unsatisfied with the decisions in their home states, some families have gone to great lengths to ensure their sons’ and daughters’ fall sports participation. Over the past few months, stories of student- athletes and their family members hopping neighboring state borders – and making cross-country excursions – for the opportunity to play have surfaced in the media.

Due to its shared borders with Illinois and Minnesota, states that have postponed football and girls volleyball and boys soccer (Illinois only), Iowa could be included on a list of potential refuge states for outgoing transfers.

“We’ve been given the ‘heads up’ on more kids trying to come in this year,” said Tom Keating, executive director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA). “The thought is that people are coming here, playing football and then leaving, but we won’t know that until football season is over.”

Since Iowa high school athletic directors are authorized to handle their own transfer situations, the majority of cases never make it to the IHSAA level unless they feature an appeal. So far this year, the state office has presided over 11 eligibility appeal hearings, with only two of those involving out-of-state students.

While there is understandably a heightened level of suspicion surrounding this year’s transfer scene, Keating pointed out that it is not the role of the IHSAA to appraise or validate public concerns regarding transfer students, only to make sure protocols are carried out properly.

“I have a few sayings that people always roll their eyes at and one of them is, ‘I only know what I know,’” said Keating. “I don’t know rumors to be true. I don’t know what someone’s motivation is. I only know if they are following the process or not. And if they do, they’re eligible.”

“I think those who are coming from out-of-state are absolutely transferring for athletic reasons,” said Georgia High School Association (GHSA) Executive Director Robin Hines. “And as long as they take the proper steps, I don’t see an issue with that.”

Largely because of COVID-19, the GHSA has actually seen fewer transfers than a normal year to this point, but the state’s rich high school football tradition and a fall schedule that began September 4 provided substantial transfer appeal for those seeking a landing spot.

“We’ve had them move in from California, from New York, Maryland, and I’m sure it’s to play football, mostly – we’ve seen that,” Hines said.

The easiest way to become immediately eligible in either state is to complete a “bona fide move,” which requires a student-athlete’s entire family to move simultaneously into the new school district. While any family willing to pick up and move everything for the sake of a fall sports season can certainly be described as dedicated, one extreme instance includes the parents of a California- to-Georgia transplant becoming legally separated in order to make a bona fide move. Their child will be eligible to play for a Georgia high school in the fall of 2020, after which the parents plan to reform their union.

“Parents care about their kids,” said Keating. “They want to see their kids be a part of something they love and something of tremendous value in high school athletics – we get that. We’re just trying to keep that proverbial playing field level, and our transfer procedures are a part of that process.”

Other student-athletes and schools were determined to reap the highest possible value from the fall sports season through clever use of the options available in their native states and districts.

An outstanding example comes from Limon (Colorado) High School. With the opportunity to defend their title as the two-time Colorado High School Activities Association Class 1A state champions postponed until spring, members of the Limon football team approached school administrators with the idea to bring back the school’s golf program, a provision the school had not offered in almost a decade.

Andy Love, a Limon alumnus and current assistant football and assistant baseball coach, supported the football players in their request and stepped forward to coach. The team shot a 23-overpar 95 to place 16th in its first tournament, but none of that really mattered. The important thing was they were out there, and they were competing.

“Sports are our lifeline,” said Love. “That’s what people do on Friday and Saturday nights. Our community follows our sports so strongly. It gives our kids this great atmosphere and environment whether it’s the football field, the basketball court or whatever. Our community rallies around our kids.”

Cole Yearsley, a football, basketball and baseball standout at Yorkville (Illinois) High School, also elected to start playing golf this fall, and in the process of becoming a four-sport athlete, discovered how much he enjoyed the game.

Not only did he make the golf team at Yorkville, which has an enrollment of just under 1,800 students, he was immediately penciled into the lineup for the season-opening conference meet.

“I’ve golfed since I was a teenager but always for fun,” Yearsley said. “Now that I have the opportunity, it was like, ‘let’s go for it.’ I’m doing it and I’m having a blast.”

And in Michigan, football players Ben Wellnitz, a senior at Freeland High School, and Royce Daugherty, a sophomore at Watervliet High School, signed up to participate in replacement sports they thought would occupy their entire fall seasons. That was until Michigan’s historic decision to reinstate fall campaigns for football, boys soccer, volleyball and girls swimming and diving.

Wellnitz, who joined Freeland’s soccer team for the interim, played in two contests and scored a goal in an 8-0 victory over Birch Run High School, a match that took place directly after his first organized football practice of the year.

“But that’s probably my last game … it’s too much with football although they asked me to keep playing,” Wellnitz said right after the Birch Run game. “I enjoyed playing soccer. I liked the other guys on the team. I liked the coach. I’m thankful they gave me the opportunity to play.”

Daugherty, an offensive and defensive lineman for the Watervliet football team who weighs in at 300 pounds, decided to take up cross country. Yes, cross country.

“I talked with my parents and a couple friends to see what I should do, and I found that cross country would be the best option because it will help me get tougher mentally and physically,” Daugherty said.

Originally, Watervliet cross country coach Aaron Weber wasn’t quite sure what to make of Daugherty’s request to join the team, but after rummaging through the track and field uniforms to find one that fit the hulking youngster, the coach found himself impressed by the wherewithal of the team’s newest addition.

“To put yourself out there in something that’s very different than what you’re used to, that takes a certain type of person, especially when you’re a teenager,” Weber said. “Not everyone is willing to step into something they’re going to struggle with, especially in front of people.”

While some of these approaches align more closely with the ideals of education-based athletics than others, the desire to create and protect crucial participation opportunities for high school student- athletes and provide them once again with a sense of belonging, is a common thread seen through all lenses.

“We believe in the value of the activities and strive to provide breadth and depth to those activities,” said Faflick. “And every activity is equally important, and if a kid cannot participate in an activity, we want to figure out how we can make that possible because that may be the one way a student connects to a school.”