The headline alone provides a much-needed shot of optimism. The National Federation of State High School Associations has stated, “With 2021 around the corner, all states are expected to be playing high school sports.”
It’s definitely what youth athletes – and their parents – want to be hearing right now. And according to executive director Dr. Karissa Niehoff, the NFHS, the governing body for high school sports, has had plenty of opportunity to study the situation, and plenty of statistics to back up their assertion:
“As our Fall Sports Championships Guide indicates, 35 states conducted football postseasons this fall. Currently, 22 states have concluded their seasons, including 20 that finished with traditional state championships. Postseason football play is continuing in 10 other states, with the majority of those set to conclude by this Saturday, December 19. The last state football championship is planned for January 14-16 with the large-class finals of the Texas University Interscholastic League.
It is anticipated that 29 of the 35 states that played football this fall will finish with traditional state championships, while the other six had other culminating events to conclude the regular season.
Eleven of the remaining 16 states have established dates for a football season in early 2021, with four states (Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Rhode Island) yet to determine dates. Vermont held 7-on-7 football this fall and is not expected to conduct a traditional 11-player season.
In addition to football, 35 states were able to offer volleyball programs this fall, and an even larger percentage of states conducted soccer and cross country in their normal timeframes.”
The NFHS has also noted that while some COVID cases have been reported among athletes, “we believe students have more often contracted the virus in other settings and brought it into practices or games.” The NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee is continuing to study data about the risk of COVID-19 spread from direct contact in sports competition over the past fall sports season.
And make no mistake – there is much data to be sorted through. NFHS notes, “Most of the reports about percentages of cancelled games are anecdotal at this point, but the Kentucky High School Athletic Association reported that 231 of 967 (23.8 percent) regular-season football games in its state were cancelled for COVID-19 related reasons; however, the KHSAA has persevered and will conduct its state championships this coming weekend.”
A total of 22 states have played regular-season basketball contests so far, with two additional states scheduled to start play later this month, as indicated in the NFHS Winter Sports Seasons Guide.
Just under 20 other states have noted that they intend to begin their seasons after January 1, with start dates ranging from January 2 to March 12. Nine states have yet to announce start dates for basketball – Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington – with start dates dependent upon case levels and other factors, among these the availability of a vaccine.
Across the nation, states' varying degrees of stricture can be seen not just in whether or not they allow areas to host games, and to allow in spectators, but in guidance regarding PPE. The Virginia High School League recently noted that it recommends, but does not require, masks during games.
The NFHS is urging patience and prudence among its member associations – but those two items are in short supply at the moment. In many cases, sports officials have forged their own trails forward – with uneven results.
In the Lynnwood suburb of Chicago, the Southland Center, an athletic club, has been cited after it hosted a youth wrestling tournament in apparent defiance of a state order forbidding indoor sports. There could be no doubt the organization knew what it was doing since, in an e-mail sent to coaches, parents and wrestlers in advance of the event encouraged recipients to stay silent— in an effort to "keep a low of a profile as possible" — and not to stream the tournament on Facebook or other social media sites and avoid posting about it until the Monday after it had taken place. This, the organizers noted, "will help keep the noise down around the event and hopefully keep the negative wishes away that would keep us from wrestling."
State officials were not amused, with Governor J.B. Pritzker going so far as to call the tournament a "terrible idea."
But other states are not as conservative. In Raleigh, a soccer tournament went forward, hosting 325 teams, according to WRAL.com. Raleigh, a mecca for soccer tournaments, is fast becoming the place to be for athletes wishing to play – and to be seen. The expected economic impact was $6 million.
"We’ve been able to do this for six months with teams from out of state coming in at times, running tournaments, running showcases and have been able to do it safely without transmitting COVID from one place to another. That is the backbone by which we continue to operate now," Bryan Bachelder, the director of NCFC tournaments, told WRAL. He also noted that spectator numbers were limited and that masks – for everyone, including athletes during play – were required.
Precautions are seen as key to keeping tournaments running. In Moscow, Idaho, two youth tournaments, one in baseball and the other in soccer, were abruptly shut down after it was noted that spectators were not following rules regarding mask wearing and social distancing. And there's no doubt that events are sorely missed across the entire spectrum of athletes (from youth through adults); EnduranceBiz has noted that all 12 full-distance IRONMAN races in 2021 are already sold out.
Niehoff, however, continues to be optimistic that if all rules are followed, sports can resume. In fact, she notes, they are imperative to student health and wellbeing, and should be given every chance to succeed.
“We understand and support that health concerns related to COVID-19 must come first, but every opportunity possible for high school students to engage in sports and performing arts should remain on the table.”