Should athletes be playing high school, or any, sports?
In the span of a week, Connecticut’s governing body for high school sports announced its intentions to carry out a fall sports schedule and the University of Connecticut canceled its 2020 football season.
“The goal is to allow for as many participation opportunities as possible for all teams and schools within the challenging current circumstances,” said a CIAC press release outlining its intentions to have a fall sports schedule.
“The safety challenges created by COVID-19 place our football student-athletes at an unacceptable level of risk,” said UConn Athletic Director David Benedict in pulling the plug on the team’s fall schedule.
The CIAC said it made its decision for high school student-athletes based on input from, “Connecticut State Medical Society Sports Medicine Committee, state officials, medical professionals, athletic trainers, superintendents, principals, athletics directors and coaches.”
UConn made its decision, “After receiving guidance from state and public health officials and consulting with football student-athletes.”
This does not compute.
Yes, there are differences between high school and collegiate level sports, and also between the high contact game of football and other sports.
College teams travel to different states, while high school athletes would compete strictly in Connecticut, where the COVID-19 cases have been relatively low of late.
And UConn has some practical reasons aside from the medical ones that made trying to pursue a 2020 season problematical. Now an independent football program, UConn saw its schedule erode in recent weeks as other conferences decided to play only in-conference games or not play at all.
Still, the announcement that UConn did not feel it could safely carry out its football season has to, at the very least, raise uncertainty about the prospects for high school sports. And what happens to UConn’s flagship athletic programs, women’s and men’s basketball? Those games are played indoors, involve much travel and plenty of contact.
Professional baseball, basketball and hockey are trying to continue in a bizarre “bubble” reality, athletes and coaches separated from the rest of the world, stands empty of spectators and fans only able to root, root, root for the home team from afar. In the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League there are no home games.
For professional sports it is largely about the money, mainly the lucrative TV contracts.
The motivation at the high school level is more noble. As the CIAC notes in its plan for fall sports, participation in these athletic activities can be “critical to the cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and mental health of our students.” And we can’t disagree with the CIAC’s assessment that the cessation of interscholastic athletic activities “has negatively impacted our students.”
But is our elevating of sports to such a high priority, and the extraordinary steps and inherent risks our society is willing to take to try to continue them, a symptom that collectively we are not being as serious and sacrificing as much as necessary to get this pandemic under control? Would it not be better to await the arrival of a safe vaccine before there is a widespread return to athletic fields?
We don’t presume to have a definitive answer, but it is a discussion worth having.
To the CIAC’s credit, it has emphasized that its plans are fluid and it is ready to adjust and react as circumstances evolve. It has delayed the seasonal start for various fall sports to Sept. 24, which delays preparational practices as well, all with the intent of allowing more preparation to do things more safely — if that is possible.
The pitfalls are plentiful. If a student-athlete tests positive for COVID-19, an entire team faces being shut down, all the students having to quarantine. And the ripple effects would spread to teams they played against.
The MLB has had several team outbreaks. Rutgers football saw 28 players test positive when practices began.
The fall season also corresponds with the start of the flu season, which is expected to complicate dealing with the outbreak. And health experts speculate colder weather, and a return to more indoor activities, could bring a renewed spike in COVID-19 cases.
Trying to safely carry out high school football programs appears particularly problematic.
We are not ready to say there cannot be a fall high school sports schedule, but count us as skeptical. The CIAC is right that it needs to be fluid, and very much so.
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