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IN WAKE OF NATIONAL GUIDELINES, IS HS FOOTBALL IN DANGER?

Lots Of Obstacles For Football, Wrestling, Boys Lax And Cheer

By Rich Thomaselli
HVSR Staff

Is high school football in danger of not being played in the fall?

And, for that matter, what about wrestling, boys lacrosse, cheerleading and dance?

Those were the sports identified by the National Federation of State High School Associations as being the most at risk to contract the coronavirus in a 16-page document outlining guidelines for states for a safe return of high school sports in the midst of the pandemic.

The Federation is the national governing body for state associations, including the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, which almost always follows what the National Federation suggests.

But the guidelines, which include ranking sports by risk factor and introducing a series of three phases before a sport can fully return, are leaving some coaches, players and fans with a burning question.

Will there be football in the fall?

I can’t say if we’re going to modify the fall season. Right now, there is no template, no blueprint. — NYSPHSAA Executive Director Robert Zayas

Football, along with wrestling in the winter, boys lacrosse in the spring, as well as cheerleading and dance, are all considered ‘Higher Risk Sports’ according to the document, which cited the obvious – the close contact, the likelihood of droplets being transferred from one person to another, and the inability to socially distance during play.

And the guidelines for the so-called ‘Higher Risk Sports’ are, well …. Are you familiar with the phrase ‘jumping through hoops?’

“I read the report. It’s a lot to process,” Haldane football coach Ryan McConville said. “Speaking optimistically, I think we’re in the early stages until we get a grip on it. We have to wait until the Mid-Hudson Valley is OK’d by the governor (to reopen for business).”

But some coaches aren’t as optimistic.

Said one area football coach: “These guidelines, especially for football, border somewhere between highly restrictive and highly unlikely to be able to adhere to.”

Dr. Robert Zayas, Executive Director of the NYSPHSAA – which most often follows the National Federation – said in an interview with HVSR that it is too soon to tell, with the first official practice still three months away on Aug. 24.

“I was actually a member of the (National Federation) subcommittee that created that guidance. I worked with several other people, quite a few of them physicians,” Zayas said. “It’s just guidance. It gives us a template to abide by. By no means is it a regulation. As far as football in the fall, all sports are planning to start on Aug. 24. If changes are necessary, we’ll make decisions accordingly. Right now it’s so early.”

Zayas, who has had to make some difficult decisions since March – ending the winter season prematurely and canceling the entire spring season – said he is in constant contact with the state’s 11 sectional executive directors as well as his peers from across the country.

“I can’t say if we’re going to modify the fall season. Right now, there is no template, no blueprint,” Zayas said. “This has been the most chaotic two to three months of my professional career. The thing that is most difficult is how quickly information changes.”

Zayas said one thing he definitely won’t do is flip-flop seasons. There had been some talk of New York switching the fall season with the spring – baseball, softball, etc. being played starting in September, especially with those sports considered less of a risk, and football being played in the spring with the hopes that the virus would dissipate by next year.

But Zayas said no, wary of what could happen if, as some health officials believe, the virus comes back stronger in the fall.

“If we did that and there’s an issue in the fall, then you just impacted your spring athletes twice in a six-month period,” he said.

Athletic directors are in the same boat of indecision, reliant on decisions being made above them.

“I skimmed through the report and we just don’t have any answers yet until we see what our government says,” Arlington AD Mike Cring said.

Added Franklin D. Roosevelt Athletic Director Tom Cunningham: “Right now it’s still early to say anything about any sport. It’s way too early to be worried about what’s going to happen in the fall. We will prepare to have all sports and follow the guidance of the NYSPHSAA and the State Education Dept. I’m hopeful as anyone should be.”

But as the one coach said, even guidelines in general will be difficult to keep up with in football. For instance, one guideline for football is that the ball cannot be touched by more than one player, which kind of make snaps and handoffs and passes and interceptions and fumbles kind of difficult, to say the least.

“We’re a small program. I don’t even know if I have enough footballs to keep swapping out,” McConville joked. “And there’s other things to think about based on the guidelines. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it. I mean, like the WaterBoy (a giant jug of cold water with multiple hoses to drink out of). Are we allowed to use it or does every kid have to bring his own water bottle or cooler? What about every time a kid uses a tackling wheel, do we have to wipe it down?”

 

It was also suggested that players wear face masks. Given that some people are having enough trouble walking around for 15 minutes with a face covering, it’s hard to imagine football players going hard for 48 minutes in a mask.

The ‘Higher Risk Sports’ are so deemed because they “involve close, sustained contact between participants, lack of significant protective barriers, and high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants.”

Sports identified as ‘Moderate Risk Sports’ include basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, gymnastics, ice hockey, field hockey, tennis, swimming relays and girls lacrosse. These are “sports that involve close, sustained contact, but with protective equipment in place that may reduce the likelihood of respiratory particle transmission between participants OR intermittent close contact OR group sports OR sports that use equipment that can’t be cleaned between participants.”

Finally, ‘Lower Risk Sports’ are “sports that can be done with social distancing or individually with no sharing of equipment or the ability to clean the equipment between use by competitors,” such as cross country, swimming, golf and individual running events in track and field.

The National Federation said three separate phases should be reached before any sport returns fully. Phase 1 recommends zero equipment sharing and other shared equipment, such as balls, should be properly cleaned after each usage. Balls should not be passed between athletes, and students should remain six feet apart. Gatherings of no more than 10 people are required; locker rooms will remain closed.

Phase 2 allows up to 50 people to come together outdoors, which should be help with football, although social distancing must be maintained. Locker rooms will be open. All players will have to be screened for coronavirus symptoms.

And in Phase 3, 50 people can also gather indoors while athletes maintain a distance of 3-to-6 feet when not competing.

Of course, all of this becomes a moot point if athletes don’t physically return to school buildings in the fall. No face-to-face schooling, no sports.

“I think right now we’re all operating on the same page and, unfortunately, that page isn’t telling us much right now,” Brewster football coach Ed Mulvihill said. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think right now it’s a product of time – we don’t start official practice until Aug. 24, we don’t start school until the first week of September, and that’s a ways away.”

Zayas agreed.

“I think all of that will be examined and analyzed. It’s why we created the COVID-19 Task Force (for the NYSPHSAA),” he said. “We have some very good people, including representation from the State Education Dept. Once information really starts to develop we’ll be able to make decisions.”

Zayas said one advantage is that all high school sports associations have the luxury of precedence.

“We have the gratuity of not being the first domino to fall,” he said. “The NFL and colleges, with billions of dollars at stake, will have to put their guidelines in first. We can utilize that to our benefit if we’re patient.”

Still, without school buildings being open at the moment and private gyms closed until at least June 13, if not longer, all fall sports athletes are at a disadvantage in training for the season. For football, the ultimate contact sport, it becomes more of an issue because the two-week period between the first official practice and the first game isn’t nearly enough time to get in football shape.

Already, players have missed months of offseason weight training, other workouts, passing scrimmages, lineman challenges and more.

McConville was asked, realistically how long would he need to have a team ready to play.

“That’s a great question,” he said. “It’s tough. A lot of our guys and a lot of guys across this state are doing their due diligence and working out. But I would say you really need three or four weeks to be ready to play, not two weeks. When they come back we’re worried a lot about soft-tissue issues, like cutting and changing direction and maybe pulling a groin, things of that nature.”

But Newburgh Free Academy football coach Bill Bianco said he thinks his program will be ready to go on Aug. 24.

“We’re in shape right now,” Bianco said. “My six captains have been running cardio workouts on Zoom for the last month-and-a-half and we get 50 kids online. As coaches, we’ve been doing stuff on Zoom and installing parts of our schemes. We’re ready to step on the field tomorrow.”

Hopefully, there will be a tomorrow.

     

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