The fate of fall sports hangs in the balance. We face a pivotal week as decision makers meet to determine whether football and so many other beloved activities will be allowed to happen when school starts in August.
Americans are starved for sports. While some college conferences may decide to try to satisfy that hunger by moving forward or, in the case of the mighty Southeastern Conference, will at least wait until the end of July before making a final decision, some have already put hopes for a fall season on ice. The Ivy League announced this week it would not hold a fall season in 2020. Some individual schools also have made similar decisions. Meanwhilem the Big Ten and Pac-12 have announced their members will only play conference games this fall.
In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday announced contact sports – football and soccer – would not be permitted in the fall, while the New Mexico Activities Association quickly rushed to say those sports that are unable to be played in the fall will be moved to the spring. That came on a day in which a school administrator in Dallas questioned the feasibility of Texas having a high school football season but also on a day in which the Utah High School Athletic Association unanimously approved a plan to move ahead with fall sports as regularly scheduled.
“I guess it is kind of comforting Utah is going ahead. It gives me some hope,” said Durango School District 9-R athletic director Ryan Knorr, who began to look toward filling holes on the Demons’ fall schedules where New Mexico teams had previously filled spots. “I think it is a little early for New Mexico to make that sort of call. It’s not consistent. We are in a unique geographic location here in the Four Corners. Durango is not the same as Denver. Salt Lake is not the same as St. George, and Farmington is not the same as Albuquerque. It’s just interesting to see how different places so close together have such different responses to the same issues.
“But we are seeing moves being made with the Ivy League not playing college sports in the fall, so I think people are just making plans. You can’t fault them for that. We are seeing that the government trumps everything and any plans maybe made to play in the fall. The governance of this is so interesting to see play out.”
True, the new coronavirus pandemic has affected some regions much harder than others, and thus different approaches have been taken from, state to state, county to county and town to town.
But all of those moves leave the decision makers within college conferences and high school athletic associations with a lot to ponder this week.
A start date for CHSAA?The Colorado High School Activities Association has submitted a plan to state health officials with the goal of getting approval to begin in August. CHSAA wants business as usual in the fall after the cancellation of spring sports in 2020, but it is being careful not to rush an announcement and aims to have ground to stand on if there is pushback regarding the approval of fall sports from Gov. Jared Polis.
“Could we move forward with the current guidelines and announce the start of some sports/activities? Absolutely, but our lens and strategic plan for the future of all programs must be broader,” CHSAA Commissioner Rhonda Blanford-Green wrote in an email to athletic directors Thursday. “Our responsibility and accountability as an educational institution must set higher safety standards for participation than the ‘free for all’ that we observe at our local parks/recreation and youth events each day. We aren’t them and will continue to advocate for recognition through our relationships with state and health officials for the latitude to conduct high school events applicable to the membership’s operational realities and comprehensive needs.
“The CHSAA staff has completed and submitted our proposed requirements and safety guidelines for practice, competition, event management and officials oversight to the Governor’s team for review, revisions, and ultimately approval. Once we receive feedback, we will forward next steps to the membership. Our staff is ready to announce start dates, provide guidelines and present in multiple educational outreaches but we will not move forward without an assurance from our state and health departments. Direct communication with these groups and approval of requirements, requests and guidelines specific to high school programs will provide us with negotiating leverage should guidelines become more restrictive during a resurgence or the predicted second wave.”
A potential start date for CHSAA leaked Friday. In a message posted to iWannamaker.com, the website used to report scores for high school golf, CHSAA associate commissioner Tom Robinson posted a note from Blanford-Green indicating Aug. 10 as the start for fall sports.
Most golf teams had one or two tournaments scheduled before Aug. 10, but the news came as a promising sign Friday.
“Our plan is to start the fall season on Aug. 10 (including boys golf), but that is dependent upon prompt approval from the Governor’s office. Again, this date could change,” the message said. “Once approval is received from the Governor’s office, we will communicate sport-specific scheduling modifications to athletic directors and coaches. Our plan is to start the fall season with planned modifications, anticipating that decisions at the national and state level could disrupt or delay a season.
“We are prepared with additional contingency plans to protect participation opportunities for all 29 athletic and activities programs should they be needed.”
Contingency plans would mean playing fall sports in the spring semester of 2021. CHSAA has a plan in place to complete all sports by July 1, 2021 if that situation were to arise.
RMAC to make call July 17Much is left to be decided at the college level, and those discussions will happen during the next week.
Thursday, the National Junior College Athletic Association, which is not affiliated with the NCAA, said its Presidential Advisory Council has recommended that majority of fall and winter competition be moved to the spring semester of 2021. An official plan of action will be announced Monday.
Fort Lewis College awaits an announcement July 17 from the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference after a meeting of its Presidents Council. It is believed NCAA Division II could make its own announcement July 15.
Already, D-II has lowered the maximum and minimum game requirements for the 2020-21 school year, largely leading schools to play conference-only schedules, especially in men’s and women’s basketball. Currently, basketball season for FLC is scheduled to begin Dec. 4.
So far, only the California Collegiate Athletic Association has canceled fall sports in D-II, and that conference does not have football. It is one of 24 D-II conferences.
FLC athletic director Brandon Leimbach said it will be interesting how many more follow in the coming weeks.
“Division II is leaving it up to each conference right now to do what is best for their region based on COVID, weather, etc.,” said Leimbach, noting the NCAA management council has the option to move fall championships to the spring if all of D-II moves the fall competitive segment. “Athletic directors are all over the place with opinions.”
Tough spring choicesCoaches and athletes want to play now if possible. A move to the spring creates more than a handful of problems.
“It’s gonna create a crazy dynamic,” FLC football coach Darrius G. Smith said. “There is going to be pressure on the kids about what they are going to do and if they going to be able to play the sport they love. There is already enough stress being a day to day teenager and finishing off your last year of school and worrying about a scholarship. My heart goes out to all of those kids and their families in New Mexico having to make tough decisions.”
The pain is especially real in northwest New Mexico, where baseball and softball are beloved spring sports, perhaps even more than fall football. Choosing between football and baseball will likely leave athletes split and damage the ability of either to compete at a top level.
New Mexico also isn’t a professional sports state. While many in Colorado are more consumed with Denver Broncos season than their local high school, that isn’t the case in New Mexico. The biggest draw in that state is University of New Mexico Lobos men’s basketball. Without the presence of high-level pro sports or college football, New Mexicans become passionate fans of their local high school. Shiprock basketball games draw thousands of fans. The state basketball tournament in recent years fills more seats at The Pit than the Lobos. High school football stadiums are packed on a Friday night, and only a Farmington vs. Piedra Vista baseball game can draw as many fans at Ricketts Park in Farmington as a Connie Mack World Series championship game.
Amateur sports are king in New Mexico. For at least a few more months, athletes and fans in that state will have to look elsewhere.
If Colorado is forced to move fall sports to the spring, many of those same pains will be felt here. An already difficult year for athletes seeking to be recruited by colleges will be made even more challenging. Top athletes will have to pick between sports they never should have had to pick between. And, if that happens, it will be the state’s smallest schools that feel the biggest burden.
Terene Foutz, the head coach of Bayfield High School volleyball, doesn’t want to see her athletes have to pick between volleyball and track and field or girls soccer, nor does she want to see football players have to pick between baseball and football. She is also worried about spring seasons going beyond May and the potential of seniors leaving teams before the completion of seasons. Schools also will worry about club sports and athletes opting to quit high school sports early to play with their travel teams in the summer of 2021.
“Smaller schools will be visibly affected,” Foutz said.”If fall sports are shifted to spring season, what do students lose, what must they give up? For the smaller schools relying more heavily on multi-sport athletes, they will be negatively affected. If volleyball moves to spring season, what are the repercussions for volleyball, girls soccer, track and field, assuming those spring seasons simultaneously schedule or overlap? Rosters would be severely diluted across those programs.
“Would potential shifts and delays push spring seasons into June and post-graduation scheduling? If this scenario plays out, athletic programs are at risk of losing their seniors.”
Athletic departments stretched thinA move to the spring also will make recruiting all that much more difficult for coaches in 2021 after an already difficult year in 2020 because of NCAA-mandated dead periods related to the virus. Smith, in his first year leading the Skyhawks football team, is concerned about high schools and junior colleges moving football to spring.
“If we are playing in the spring, too, can we go out and do recruiting? How are we gonna get out there? Resources are going to come into play, especially at smaller colleges like ours,” Smith said. “Athletic departments trying to run full seasons of 14 different sports at the same time, how do you stretch the budget and your resources? There are a lot of hurdles that have to be well thought out to pull off a season and think about the next year.”
Avoiding a domino effectAt the end of the day, all agree the right choices have to be made with the health of athletes, coaches and officials in mind. The hope, though, is that decisions already made by the likes of New Mexico and the Ivy League don’t lead to a domino effect for other states and conferences. Those involved in sports simply want each decision to be made with the best knowledge available within the decision makers’ jurisdiction.
“I’m very optimistic you can play football right now,” said Smith. “At the same time, I want whatever decision is made to be made for the health, safety and welfare of all student-athletes. Players love to play the game. Coaches love to coach the game. But we aren’t ready to put anyone’s life in front of this game.
“I just never want to see anyone bow down to any type of peer pressure. I want our Presidents Council to do the same thing I am trying to do as a head ball coach, and that is make decisions based on science and the safety and welfare of the student-athletes. If decisions are made based on science, I can 100% stand behind that and support that, even if I might not necessarily like it.”
No matter what decisions are made over the next week, a portion of the nation’s population will be at the very least angered. It will be crucial for strong leadership and for clear plans to be communicated and for it to be apparent those decisions were made on an individual basis and not because of any mounting pressure created by early decisions already made elsewhere.
“Utah is just a glimmer of hope that each state follows its own best policy versus any domino effect response to these closures,” Foutz said.
Now, we wait to see which dominoes fall and which are able to stand in a sports world shaken to its core since the pandemic hit the U.S. in March.
John Livingston is the regional sports editor for Ballantine Communications. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jlivi2.