GLADWIN – With every passing day it seemed more unlikely that football would be played in Michigan this fall. The first shoe dropped on July 30 when the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Conference cancelled fall sports in favor of a possible spring season. On August 8 the Mid American Conference (MAC) became the first Football Subdivision Conference to postpone fall sports. Fans of Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan will have to wait until the spring to see their teams take the field. Other conferences followed suit with the Big Ten to be the first from the Power 5 to announce the cancellation of the fall sports seasons on August 11. The Great Lakes Intercollegiate Conference made the same move on August 12.
By Wednesday afternoon Michigan State, University of Michigan and local schools such as Saginaw Valley State, Northwood and Ferris State were looking at a fall without football and other fall sports, but still the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) was hoping to go forward with a full schedule in the fall. On August 7, MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl mentioned wanting to bring some sense of normalcy back through extra curricular activities.
On August 10 a MHSAA press release indicated that they were monitoring the situation with college sports, but would not necessarily cancels sports just because the colleges did. Media and content coordinator for the MHSAA Geoff Kimerly said, “we are certainly keeping an eye on things. We have been watching what has been going on at those levels all summer long. We don’t feel pressured by what’s happening at the college level.” So what changed?
On Friday the MHSAA released a statement indicating that due to the higher risk of spreading COVID-19 football would be moved from the fall to the spring. The Representative Council of the Michigan High School Athletic Association announcement also said that other fall sports would proceed as scheduled.
According to the release the move was made after consultation with state health department officials and after surveying MHSAA member high schools about their progress and preference after the first four days of practice. The risk of spreading the virus was considered to be too great to go forward with the fall season especially when the level of player-to-player contact is taken into account.
A visibly shaken Uyl spoke on camera explaining the MHSAA decision-making process. He stated that it had been 155 days since last March when the world changed for those involved in high school athletics. First the winter tournaments were suspended followed by the cancellation of school and spring sports. He said that they quickly turned their attention to fall sports in hopes of developing a plan, “so that those kids especially the seniors of the class of 2021 would not have to deal with the same heartbreak and challenges that our seniors did last spring.”
Uyl also spoke on several radio shows around the state on Monday. He tried to explain the reasoning behind the decision to move football. One of his discussions can be found on a podcast from 97.1 The Ticket out of Detroit. On it he said, “We did a survey of schools on Thursday after three days of practice. About 90 percent of the schools were in favor of moving forward with low risk sports; golf, cross country and tennis, it was 75 percent in favor of moving forward with moderate risk sports, volleyball, soccer and swimming, but when it came to the football question the support was there but not by much.”
“We could have pushed through and gotten in some football games this fall, continued Uyl. I don’t doubt that. However it would have just been kids playing. It would not have included the bands which are such a big part of football in some communities, it would not have included cheerleaders and it would not have included any spectators including moms and dads of players and moms and dads of seniors.”
“At the end of the day, we did everything we could to find a path forward for football this fall,” Uyl said. “But while continuing to connect with the Governor’s office, state health department officials, our member schools’ personnel and the Representative Council, there is just too much uncertainty and too many unknowns to play football this fall.”
“My own son is a senior,” added Uyl. “I certainly understand the heartache and hurt after what kids have put into this. Certainly we’re disappointed with what we had to do on Friday, but its not devastating. Last spring when we had to cancel the remainder of our tournaments and cancel all spring that was devastating.”
When asked about what makes football different than other sports Uyl said it is the “nature of the game.” He explained how his own son played travel baseball last summer. In baseball you don’t have ten players converging on a single play. In football it happens all of the time. “The nature of football,” makes it hard to predict what will happen with the virus.
“Other fall sports are scheduled to move forward because simply put they just don’t carry the same risk levels that the hand-to-hand, face-to-face every play contact in football requires of our young people that play this great game,” continued Uyl. “No one is willing to take the risk of COVID being passed on because of a high risk sport.”
The press release went on to discuss the other fall sports not deemed to be high risk. Volleyball and soccer are considered moderate-risk, while cross-country, golf, tennis and swimming and diving are considered low-risk. cross country, Lower Peninsula girls golf and boys tennis and Upper Peninsula girls tennis began practice Aug. 12; golf and tennis teams may begin competing Aug. 19, and cross country teams may begin competing Aug. 21.
Volleyball, boys’ soccer and Lower Peninsula girls swimming and diving also began practice Aug. 12, and competition guidelines for those sports will be announced Aug. 19. Schools in regions under Phase 4 of the MI Safe Start Plan remain unable to play volleyball or swim/dive indoors due to governmental restrictions. Further guidance from Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office is expected in the near future regarding these indoor facilities.
Uyl said that the administrators had students in mind and were not discounting their desire to play. His voice caught as he explained that he is the parent of a senior football player. “We have done everything possible to find that pathway forward for our football our football kids this fall and we simply ran out of time. This day will certainly be a disappointment to all of our football players, coaches and families of which the Uyl’s are part. Just know that we are going to take todays disappointment and put all of our effort and energy into giving our kids the best possible football experience imaginable in the spring of 2021.”
“We can get a season in. It’s not going to be the full nine-week regular season and a five-week tournament to end the season. It will need to be shortened. We don’t want to shortchange any of our winter and spring kids.” Many possible scenarios have been presented for a spring football season. One that seems to be getting a lot of attention involves a shortened regular season with everyone making the playoffs. According to the press release details including a specific schedule and format will be announced over the next few months. The MHSAA will be working to limit overlap of spring football and the traditional spring sport seasons.
The spring season will probably be pushed back according to Uyl. One advantage to that is the weather will most likely be better causing fewer early season cancellations. “There is a way to make all this work. The challenge is multisport athletes,” said Uyl. “It will look different, it will be unique, but we think we can give kids a memorable experience.”
The MHSAA is supposed to be coming out with some guidance for football programs today. There has been some confusion about the next steps for teams. They had been practicing since Monday and many teams were just getting ready to start practice last Thursday when the news came down about the cancellation. The MHSAA actually allowed teams to continue practicing through today if they chose to.
Gladwin coach Marc Jarstfer is in sort of a holding pattern. They are waiting for the plan from the MHSAA. “They told us we could keep the equipment handed out so my gut tells me that they are going to try to do some sort of allowance for camps and practices over the fall.” He thinks that it would allow them to keep their athletes engaged. “I don’t know how many days that will be and what it will look like, but that is my reaction that they will have something set up because there will not be enough time when we get to the spring. We are waiting to see what the next guidance as far as what’s allowed this fall and we will put together the best plan possible.”
Football programs everywhere were struggling with the fact that normal football related activities were not allowed during the summer. Heavy weight lifting, seven-on-sevens, and team camps were all prohibited or difficult to accomplish. Athletes could not do the type of weight training necessary to get ready for football unless they had well stocked home gyms. Both Jarstfer and Beaverton coach Aaron Seiser commented on how the restrictions this summer left them feeling like they were unprepared for the season. Football coaches around the state have had the same concerns.
Gladwin had a lot on momentum entering the fall following an offseason that saw a high participation rate when team related activities were allowed. The team was preparing to practice on Friday afternoon when they got the word about the postponement. After discussing the situation with his team they decided to practice one more time. Jarstfer said that they got to get a lot of “good valuable reps in.” Even after the news he said, “the attitude was good and they were begging to go longer. They truly enjoy being around each other and being out of the house.” He feels that the practice time that they have had this summer has improved their mental outlook. “Even though they had just received some bad news they wanted to embrace the time they had.”
Beaverton was also preparing to take the field for practice on Friday when they got the notification. Seiser was actually talking to the team about the unpredictability of the situation when his phone went off. “In a matter of five minutes we went from practicing to the season got moved. It was quite shocking.” The team met on Monday to talk about the next steps and to tie up some loose ends.
The Michigan High School Football Coaches Association did issue a statement that let coaches know that they could practice Monday through Wednesday this week. Both teams decided not to practice again until they get further guidance fro the MHSAA. Seiser said, “any time we step on the field there is a risk of injury and I don’t want to take any chances with anybody. We are going to wait and see what the state is going to allow us to do.” Seiser explained that there are different guidelines for different times of the year; each has their own rules.
Seiser feels that the delay can be made into a positive. As discussed previously the lack of a summer program was bound to have an effect. “We have an opportunity to get better and I hope our kids hear that message. Yes, it’s a setback, but at the same time everybody is affected the same way and we can choose how we react to it.” He thinks everybody knew this was a possibility and he expects that his team will make the best of it.
Everything that happens going forward will be “brand new.” “Normally we are either in season, out of season or we have summer,” said Seiser. “All of those have different rules. It’s going to be interesting and is all going to be decided within 48 hours.”