GLADWIN COUNTY – The Mid American Conference (MAC) has cancelled fall sports and the Big Ten and PAC 10 seemed to be poised to make the same decision. Sports Illustrated is reporting that the Big Ten is moving toward a decision to cancel the 2020 fall season, while engaging other Power 5 conferences on a uniform decision to be announced later this week. Radio host Dan Patrick went a step further stating that 12 of 14 Big Ten Presidents voted against having a fall college football season. The Big Ten appears to be the lead domino in a chain reaction that could cancel all fall sports at the Division 1 level.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) seems to be taking another tack. Rather than looking for reasons to cancel the season Executive Director Mark Uyl has been making a case for moving forward with fall sports at the high school level. Uyl laid out his reasoning in a blog post last Friday. In it he wrote, “Since March 12, our world has been anything but normal. These times have tested most everything in life, and as summer turns toward fall, we find ourselves still with far more questions than answers. It has been said that an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” He wants to bring back some small sense of normalcy through extra curricular activities.

We learned this summer; kids will find an avenue for competition. They are not going to take the fall off. Club, travel and AAU teams were active all summer. It is naive to believe that it won’t happen again in the fall. Uly is worried about the possible consequences. “From first-hand experience, many of these events have implemented ZERO of the safety standards and protocols that businesses and schools have adopted for their plans of return. The non-school world generally has plowed ahead this summer with few-to-no rules, regulations, enforcement, oversight and accountability to anyone,” he wrote. He argues that if kids are going to play anyway, why not do it in the safest environment possible. 

Schools have been conducting conditioning and training sessions since June without a significant outbreak. Thousands of kids have participated and been able to work out safely because schools have followed the return-to-activity plans outlined by the state. It seems reasonable to believe that is the best way to continue. With professional educators and trained coaches in charge this is most likely the safest way forward.

Uyl also points out that lessons learned from sports can ease the transition for returning to face-to-face learning. Many school districts have opted for a virtual format to start the year. “Sports allow schools to bring students back to campus in small, consistent and defined groups with the same adults working with those students each day. In school sports, there is little mixing of students from one sport with those students in another – making it much easier to monitor, track and trace kids when needed than if all students were in the buildings, hallways and classrooms all day.” Many school administrators feel that “valuable lessons” can be learned which would make it more likely that schools can reopen successfully later in the fall.

Mental health is a consideration that Uyl has mentioned publically since the closure of schools last spring. He brought it up again last week in his blog post. “All of us share the fundamental belief that we must protect the health and safety of individuals first. This doesn’t include only COVID prevention measures, but also the mental health of teenage students and adults as well. In districts that are starting the school year online, they see athletics being the one shred of normalcy students, and staff members who choose to coach, will have during the fall.”

“Health and safety has to include all facets of the individual, and more research is being shared each day about how mental health is becoming a critical issue,” continued Uyl. “For many at-risk kids, sports is the one motivating factor to keep them in school and progressing toward graduation. Given the challenges of all online education for these at-risk kids, sports and the daily routine they bring perhaps would be more important for this group of students than ever before.”

Uyl closed with a strong push for high school sports this fall. “The past five months have been the most abnormal in a century. School sports being the one pathway back to school for students in our state – the one norm for this fall – run by professional educators who put kids first, would be an incredible boost to the physical and mental health of all of us. We believe that school sports can be done safely and smartly, and the MHSAA has developed plans that do just that. While the optics of sports taking place while waiting for in-person education is not what any of us prefer, we believe we must react to these abnormal times by thinking differently and looking at these unique times through a unique lens.”

Monday afternoon MLive reported that the MHSAA is monitoring the situation with college sports, but will not necessarily cancel the season just because the colleges did. Media and content coordinator for the MHSAA Geoff Kimerly discussed the situation and said, “we are certainly keeping an eye on things. We have been watching what has been going on at those levels all summer long.”  

While the games themselves are very similar the conditions surrounding athletic events at the high school and college level differ greatly. High school athletes do not have to get on airplanes and fly to different regions. During the regular season they do not have to stay in hotels or eat in restaurants. High school campuses are generally much smaller and more homogenous than college campuses. The game day experience is much easier to control at the high school level. The MHSAA obviously recognizes this and is taking it into account when evaluating the possibility of playing this fall.

“We are paying attention at what’s happening at the college level, but we don’t feel pressured by what’s happening at the college level,” said Kimmerly. “Our game in terms of who we play and how close those schools are and how close the majority of opponents are is really a lot different from what happens at the college level.”

After visiting both Beaverton and Gladwin on Monday afternoon it is obvious that the two coaching staffs are taking the situation seriously. All of the adults, including me, wore masks. The players maintained distance and brought their own drink bottles. No one wants to be the domino that brings the high school season down.

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