GLADWIN – High school sports have been put on hold again. Governor Whitmer announced Sunday night that all school sports activities are suspended effective immediately through at least December 8 or until this new order is amended. Harsh news when you consider that the fall season was almost completed. Football, volleyball and girls swimming were nearing their conclusion. The volleyball and swimming finals were scheduled for this weekend and football had three weeks left.
While there has been a backlash to the suspension it almost seemed inevitable. We have been operating on a sort of “honor system” where individuals and schools are trusted to put safety ahead of victories, and withdraw from the playoffs when a player tests positive. It has happened multiple times this fall most notably last weekend when the defending Division 7 State Football Champions Pewamo-Westphalia had to opt out.
But what happens when that system is broken? What if you can’t trust the opposition to do the “right thing?” Pickford, a small school in the Upper Peninsula, highlights that scary possibility. The Detroit Free Press reported that after a positive COVID-19 test the Chippewa County Health Department recommended that the entire team be quarantined. The quarantine would then end their season. Rather than considering the harmful ramifications, the Pickford school board held an emergency meeting and voted 5-2 not to quarantine the team. Luckily for Indian River Inland Lakes and others the MHSAA stepped in.
“There was a lot of communication with administrators, with a couple of school board members, and it was a tough call,” said Mark Uyl MHSAA Executive Director. “On Friday Pickford did bow out of the tournament.” You have to wonder how many times this has happed this season. How many players knowingly played when they shouldn’t have?
Uyl issued a press release on Sunday after the governor’s announcement. In it he stated that the MHSAA was “exploring all options to complete the three remaining fall tournaments.” He also wrote that discussions would take place to revise the winter sports plan and update the practice and competition calendar. “As we have promised since March, the MHSAA will continue to be transparent and flexible while sharing information and updated timelines once those are set.” He also reiterated support for state government and health department leaders as they develop a plan to get back to school and sports.
Uyl held a zoom session on Monday with media members from around the state to expand on his Sunday statement. During the session he said that the plan is to finish the fall championships by January 1. “Our goal as we started this new athletic year was that we were going to find a way to have three season in 2020-21,” said Uyl. “With the latest curveball all of us, every citizen in Michigan, got last night we’re heading into another three-week shutdown, very similar to the shelter in place from last winter/spring. Our goal and our plans have not changed.”
Locally, the biggest issue is the girls’ volleyball tournament. Beaverton is still alive and playing their best ball ever. The fix here should be fairly straightforward. Once the order is lifted the teams should be given a period of time to get back in volleyball shape and the tournament proceeds. The girls swimming finals are in a similar position. Lift the order, spend two weeks in the pool getting back in shape then hold the state finals. Football is a tougher call. Playing outdoors into January may mean that the football playoffs do not resume until spring which bring a whole set of other problems.
The MHSAA cannot act unilaterally and ignore the governor’s orders. “Going back to day one, we’re complied and followed the law,” continued Uyl. “Certainly that would be, after our conversation with legal counsel, what we’re required to do. After last night’s order, and again confirming with our legal counsel, that we are bound by this emergency order of the Department of Health and Human Services and that’s what we’re going to do.”
With the order going into effect on Wednesday, Uyl was asked why the Volleyball quarterfinals were not played on Tuesday as originally scheduled. Uyl said, “That got a lot of conversation and discussion. Given our COVID numbers and given that things right now are building to a point where state government and state health department officials believe that a three week shut down on schools and school sports was necessary, the optics to go ahead and play Tuesday night would have been irresponsible for us to do.”
Uyl does not believe that athletic competition has helped the spread of the virus. “The local health department officials said that they found very little evidence that the virus was being spread at practice,” said Uyl. “So getting the same group of kids together with the same coaches in practice situations it wasn’t spreading the virus. And lastly they said there wasn’t any data that shows the virus was being spread through competition, be it from teammate to teammate or to opponents in competition.”
Along with any discussion of plans to finish the season, spectator participation will also have to be considered. Will parents and other family members be allowed back in the stands? But before those plans can come to fruition we are going to have to get the COVID numbers back under control. “We’ve shown that we can do this and do this safely,” Uyl said. “I think we’ve learned a lot of lessons over the last eight months and this is hopefully going to be a three-week opportunity for all of us to do the right things to get our numbers headed back to those levels where we’ve been able to play for two-plus months. If we’re all able to do that then I thing we absolutely have a chance to have three seasons this year.”