NEW YORK – Contact sports and social distancing don’t mix.
Come the fall, if COVID-19 is still present and a vaccine has not been found, an expected scenario, distancing and mask-wearing policies are likely to remain in place, making compliance an impossibility when playing contact sports like football and soccer, which would carry with them inherent risks of transmitting the disease. Though most teenagers are not thought to be in danger, many coaches and officials are in at-risk populations, as are many of their family members.
According to data, no teenagers have died from COVID-19 in New York. Worldwide, the fatality rate for teenagers is minuscule. However, as of Tuesday, 38,173 Americans between the ages of 35 and 74 have died from the disease.
Earlier this month, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association polled more than 4,500 coaches in the state. When asked about their greatest concerns for the fall season, a large percentage of those coaches said they worry about the health of their student-athletes as well as their own health. Many coaches also expressed concern for their players’ mental wellbeing should another season be canceled.
“Weighing the potential spread of the illness vs. continued grief over what we may all continue to lose,” one coach answered. “It is an impossible scenario.”
Another coach cut right to the heart of the issue.
“How will players be able to participate in a contact sport and still observe social distancing and wearing masks,” the coach asked.
On Wednesday, June 10, NYSPHSAA’s task force assigned to give guidance on such questions convened for the first time. According to meeting minutes, task force members heard updates from state and health officials, but ended the meeting with few answers on what a fall season might look like.
Would players have to wear masks? Would they be tested for the virus before every practice and game? Would tracing procedures be in place? Can athletics operate if remote learning continues? Would spectators be allowed? Would schools be required to clean facilities after every use? Would cleaning supplies and test kits be given to schools or would they have to buy their own? How would one positive test affect the status of the season? Would schools or coaches be held liable if a player or family member fell ill?
All of these questions, and many more, would need to be answered before a fall season could occur. Sections and schools are surely preparing contingency plans for their contingency plans. But when it comes to the virus, the only certainty is uncertainty, meaning the only thing decision-makers can do right now is wait.
“At this time, valid and reliable information is not available to begin making decisions or providing recommendations pertaining to the fall 2020 season,” NYSPHSAA wrote on its website.
The reopening of New York State is being handled with a four-phased approach on a region-by-region basis. Half of the state’s 10 regions are in Phase 3, four others are in Phase 2, while New York City remains in Phase 1.
On Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that “low-risk” youth sports—baseball, softball, gymnastics, field hockey, cross country and crew—could resume starting July 6 in areas that are in Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan. Two spectators per child will be allowed at the events, Cuomo said.
School sports played every fall are cross country, field hockey, football, girls tennis, soccer, and volleyball.
On Twitter, Dr. Robert Zayas, executive director of NYSPHSAA, clarified that Cuomo’s announcement “is for recreational sports ONLY and doesn’t apply to interscholastic or school-based athletics.”
Schools are allowed to reopen in Phase 4, but a one-size-fits-all approach to allowing sports might not be feasible.
When it comes to the virus, hundreds of coaches expressed no concern at all, except that their seasons might be canceled because of it. Some coaches referred to COVID-19 as a “scam” while others compared it to the flu and downplayed its severity.
“Let us return to normalcy,” one coach wrote. “Any type of cancellation or shortening of the season would just be short-sighted and ignorant on your part. The guidelines [put] out are ridiculous. People can pile in Walmart, Target, or protest by the thousands in the streets, but we can’t play sports. Give me a break.”
Another coach wrote, “I think we need to rip the Band-Aid off and go back to school.”
Many more responses expressed a similar sentiment, saying the time has come to “open it up.” Others sympathized with the task force and recognized the dangers of the virus, but worried about the long-term consequences of cancelling another season because young adults need the “structure” that school and sports provide. To some, it’s worth the risk.
“I 100-percent support social distancing policies, but I’m afraid of the mental health of students going another season without extracurricular activities,” a coach wrote.
Another coach answered, “All of our athletes have been relegated to their homes for the last three months. While it is understandable because of the circumstances, we are on the decline of a mountain which seemed insurmountable. While I know I do not just speak for myself, coaches are just as excited as athletes to get back onto the field, court, and diamond. Our students need sports. It is imperative that we go back to not only school but back to activities because these students and athletes need it.”
But absent a vaccine, safety cannot be guaranteed.
“Nothing has changed from a scientific point with the virus,” a coach wrote. “If it wasn’t safe for us to be in school in the spring, then how are we going back in the fall, especially as it pertains to sports. Don’t get me wrong, I love sports and played two in college, but times are different right now. If we will have a vaccine by January 2021, then it’s only a small amount of time compared to the rest of our lives.”
NYSPHSAA’s task force will try again to solve the riddle of socially distant contact sports when it meets at the end of the month. A specific date had not been selected as of this writing.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes remains our top priority,” said Paul Harrica, NYSPHSAA president and task force chair, in a press release.