It is easy, understandably so, to ride the emotional roller coaster caused by the minute-to-minute coronavirus news cycle in which we currently inhabit.
Just last week, the Big Ten announced it would play only conference football games this season. The Ivy League pushed football to the spring. New Mexico announced it was moving high school football and soccer to the spring. Tennessee pushed the start of its high school football season back. Arizona did the same. A superintendent in Dallas said this about high school football (in Texas!) in the fall: “I seriously doubt that we can pull this off.”
The news cycle seems so negative. Even here, where some schools have already had to cancel practices or at least quarantine a segment of athletes due to a positive COVID-19 test or potential exposure in the first week high school facilities reopened. Fishers. South Bend. Boone Grove. There are certain to be others, probably daily, that will have to quarantine athletes.
It makes you wonder: Where is this all headed? Coaches are concerned. I talked to several last week who are feeling, at best, mixed feelings about the reopening of sports. One wondered whether the goal here is to be the last team standing — not by on-the-field victories — but by finding some way to completely dodge the coronavirus. Another called it “a long shot” when asked if we could make it to Aug. 21 and play a full slate of games on Week 1 of the high school football season.
But in talking on Friday with Paul Neidig, who will officially begin his role as the new Indiana High School Athletic Association commissioner on Aug. 1, I get the sense that nothing has surprised him so far about the reopening process. It is not “business as usual,” exactly, but canceled practices, temporary closed facilities and kids in quarantine are going to be the norm if school and sports are going to happen in a few weeks.
“We started back up with the kids on Monday and there have certainly been some places where we have had some positive tests,” Neidig said. “We have had a lot of national news around us this past week with the Ivy League and Big Ten adjusting their schedules. There have been a myriad things that have gone on nationally that we continue to monitor and watch. But our schools have put policies and practices in place and they are following the protocol of their local health department and are shutting down appropriately, so they can continue to participate.”
The news is worse in places like Florida, which set a record for any state with more than 15,000 new positive cases Sunday. Several states, including Indiana, have paused reopening plans in an attempt to curb the rising number of positive cases in many areas of the country. “The virus is on the prowl,” Indiana governor Eric Holcomb said last week. “In some places it’s gaining momentum. It’s not slowing down.”
I have heard comments from coaches such as, “It really does feel like, ‘What are we doing this for? Just to close in three weeks?’” and “It feels like we’re just chasing our tail.” One coach said: “I’m shocked how worried I am four days in.” Those are real comments and, I think, important to recognize, even if they don’t to attach their names to them. Because they are genuine concerns after a week of practice. And, to be fair, there are mixed feelings. The coaches I have talked to are over-the-moon happy to be back with their kids and practicing again. And some also believe this can work somehow, even if it might not look at all like a “normal” season.
“I think the sentiment has been pretty consistent from coaches I’ve heard from,” said Ben Davis coach Jason Simmons, who is also the assistant director for the Indiana Football Coaches Association. “It is great to be back with the kids, our coaches, and be back at it. But as far as what we are dealing with — the unknowns are hard to predict.”
The second phase of the athletics reopening process is set to begin July 20. It does not differ drastically from the first, though physical contact will be allowed, along with helmets and shoulder pads at football practices. Locker rooms can be used up to 50% capacity. Neidig said the IHSAA would reassess the phasing transition by the middle of this week.
But unless the decision comes from above the IHSAA, do not expect the fall season to be pushed back at this point. The first official practices for fall sports are set for Aug. 3 with girls golf on July 31. The first contests for girls golf is set for Aug. 3 with cross-country, volleyball and soccer on Aug. 15 and football on Aug. 21.
“At this point, I don’t see us doing anything across the board,” Neidig said. “The thing I’m studying and looking at is that I think we could have pockets or an area that gets shut down because they have COVID. But there are counties in Indiana that have very low numbers of COVID. To shut down a school with no issues, I don’t think is the right thing to do. I think in football, for instance, there may be some teams that get shut down. But our intention is to simply play through and they would have a ‘no contest’ if they couldn’t play.”
There are football coaches who would like to see football moved to spring, possibly swapped with a low-contact sport like baseball. But that does not appear to be probable in Indiana.
“Could you do it? Sure,” Neidig said. “But there are considerations along the way. If you simply move it to spring, you put it on top of track and field and baseball. You have multi-sport athlete kids who would have to choose sports. And there has been some discussion nationally about the safety of players playing a spring season and then getting back out for a fall season. Those are things we’d have to consider. When do you start that season? How far into the summer would you go to play your state tournament? The one that is constantly out there you hear is moving baseball and softball to the fall. If you make that move and then have the dark scenario that we have to shut things down again, now you have baseball losing two seasons. That’s something I have not been in favor of at all.”
For now, the course to a school year and a high school sports season remains on track. If you took around this weekend, at places like Grand Park in Westfield, travel sports in basketball, baseball and lacrosse are in full swing. School-based sports are different, obviously. There are more moving pieces — like getting school started. But a week into the process, Neidig feels like the return to high school sports is still in place.
“I think we would be sticking our head in the sand if we didn’t believe there would be some positive cases,” he said. “That was a given coming into this. I think we’re right where I expected us to be. The worst thing that can happen here is that you ignore symptoms and don’t screen kids on a daily basis. Then all of a sudden you have somebody comes through as a spreader and then you do have a big problem. I really believe we’re right where I expected us to be.”
Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.