Only Michigan and Hawaii are currently not playing, or not planning to play, high school basketball this winter.
The final three Michigan High School Athletic Association’s fall championships (football, volleyball, and girls swimming and diving) have now been successfully completed -- without any major issues, albeit two months late due to the pandemic.
Winter sports were supposed to begin shortly thereafter.
While the “non-contact” sports of boys and girls skiing, boys swimming and diving, gymnastics, and girls and boys bowling are now able to have competitions, the more popular “contact” sports of boys and girls basketball, boys and girls hockey, competitive cheerleading, and wrestling can only participate in “non-contact” drills.
The uncompleted fall playoffs as well as the start of winter sports were put on “pause” on Nov. 18 by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services because of a surge in the COVID-19 pandemic in the state.
Initially, the pause was to last only a few weeks to get through a potentially troublesome holiday season. That pause has become yet another indefinite hold.
To be able to finish the three delayed fall playoffs, the MDHHS introduced a pilot program on Dec. 18, that required that all players, coaches and other team personnel in those three sports undergo rapid BinaxNOW antigen tests that produced COVID-19 results within 15 minutes. Those tests were conducted three times a week.
According to the MHSAA, more than 30,000 tests were administered, and 99.8 percent were negative. Of all the individuals who were tested, only one percent tested positive at some point in the program.
Despite the success of the fall playoffs, the MDHHS extended the pause for the start of winter sports to Jan. 15, then to Feb. 1, and now to Feb. 21. There is no guarantee it will be lifted then.
Photo: Port Huron Times Herald
Marine City boys basketball players stretch during a recent practice.
COVID-19 metrics in Michigan
are falling dramatically
Gov. Whitmer said in early January that the state would “seriously consider” lifting protocols sooner than Jan. 15, if progress controlling the pandemic was sustained.
Michigan has seen dramatic reductions in COVID-19 cases since the pause was implemented. The seven-day average of COVID-19 cases in the state peaked at 7,270 on Nov. 21. It was 2,491 on Dec. 28, and fell to 1,185 on Jan. 25. Further, Michigan now has more people at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19 than the number of diagnosed cases since last March.
Despite the progress in combating the virus, the restrictions on contact sports have not been lifted, yet indoor dining at restaurants, gyms, bowling alleys, and casinos have been allowed to reopen.
Contact sports have also been restarted in all surrounding states with no major problems.
At a press conference on Jan. 25, Gov. Whitmer said health officials need to monitor COVID-19 metrics before taking additional steps to lift restrictions on those high school sports.
The delay has caused growing frustration.
Parents, coaches and players have called on the governor to allow contact sports to resume on Feb. 1, when indoor dining at restaurants relaunches.
Asked about a date when the sports could resume their competitions, Gov. Whitmer cited a growing number of COVID-19 variant cases in Michigan. Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, said there are now 17 cases across Washtenaw and Wayne counties, and the variant is more contagious.
"Our job is to try to curtail the spread of this new variant in Michigan," Whitmer said. "We've got to not let our guard down. We've re-engaged restaurants to a certain extent. That will increase the amount of people who are out and about. And I think it's important that we stay very
focused on where the numbers are before we take additional steps."
The MDHHS recommended on Saturday that the University of Michigan
pause its athletic programs because of variant cases. The university announced a two-week pause over the weekend.
The MDHHS released the following statement in response to why thecontact sports remain on pause:
“We are pleased to continue incrementally reopening the economy with the recent MDHHS order. Counties around the country have faced outbreaks of COVID-19 associated with sports teams. In Michigan, there were 42 outbreaks associated with athletics (K-12 schools, professional, collegiate, and commercial venues) in August and September of 2020 before restrictions on contact sports were implemented, and MDHHS and local health departments are still identifying outbreaks on teams that are currently playing. Outbreaks of this magnitude have the potential to affect not just a sports team, but the community in which the players and coaches reside as well.
“Sports that require frequent closeness between players make it more difficult to prevent disease transmission, compared to sports where players are not as close to each other. The risk of COVID-19 transmission is increased by the number of individuals a player physically interacts with, as well as the intensity and duration of that interaction. The arrival of the new B.18.104.22.168 variant also means even more caution must be taken so we avoid the rapid rise in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths that other countries that have seen this variant have experienced.
“Even with mitigation measures in place, such as wearing of masks, disease transmission cannot be completely prevented when players are in prolonged or intense contact. Contact sports include the following: football, basketball, rugby, field hockey, soccer, lacrosse, wrestling, hockey, boxing, futsal and martial arts with opponents. These risks are even greater for indoor contact sports where there is not natural ventilation to mitigate the close proximity of participants.
“Teams that can implement robust public health measures may be able to decrease risk, but risk remains elevated. We will continue to carefully watch the data to assess what other activities can be permitted. We are also laser focused on achieving our goal of vaccinating at least 70 percent of Michiganders age 16 and up as quickly as possible so we can end this pandemic and get back to a sense of normalcy.”
Photo: Livingston Daily
Skiing is the only winter sport that has allowed competitions without delay.
Administrators, grassroots group, associations make pleas to Gov. Whitmer
It would be safe to say that the MHSAA and most in the high school sports community in the state completely disagree with that statement from the MDHHS.
Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, called on Gov. Whitmer to explain the ban on contact high school sports. He posted a map Saturday that showed Michigan was one of only two states not allowing high school basketball games (see map above).
Vitti wrote to Gov. Whitmer on Monday urging her to immediately resume those sports.
"To be direct, winter 'contact' sports need to start," Vitti said in a letter he released publicly. "Here in Detroit, despite continuing and legitimate fears about COVID within the community, our 31 female and male high school coaches want to play basketball."
Vitti has long advocated allowing sports to continue amid the pandemic. He noted in his letter that he's "a supporter and critical colleague, not an adversary" of Gov. Whitmer. Still, he voiced frustration that he said is shared by many who want school sports to resume.
"I have grown frustrated with the lack of communication and clarity regarding when the start of winter 'contact' sports will be, why it has not started and what needs to occur for it to start," Vitti wrote.
"Our families have analyzed the risk of playing and they want to play," Vitti said. "As you know, this is the same sentiment across the state among thousands of players, coaches, and families for not only basketball, but
hockey and wrestling as well."
Vitti said with Whitmer's goal of offering in-person learning to students
in every district by early March, reinstating winter sports is crucial. With movie theaters, casinos and bingo halls opening, sports should reopen as well, Vitti said, noting that some athletes are already leaving the state to compete in states that have reopened.
"Please do not let this frustration reach the level of a lawsuit against you and the state," Vitti said.
The “Let Them Play” grassroots group began that process Monday.
“People have been hoping and crossing their fingers,” said Jayme McElvany, head of the Let Them Play movement that advocates for the full return of high school sports. “But now kids are at a breaking point, so instead of just hoping, parents are saying ‘This is enough. We can’t be pushed back again because we can’t go back any further. It’s literally now or never for some of these kids.”
The group – which first formed during an August shutdown and has hosted two rallies at the Capitol Building in Lansing -- incorporated as a non-profit organization and retained legal representation to take the matter to the courts, if needed.
Lansing attorney Peter Ruddell said he took the first steps in representing the group, issuing a letter Monday to Elizabeth Hertel, the newly named director of the MDHHS.
“We sent a letter to the new director this morning, urging her to change the order and allow sports to commence Feb. 1,” Ruddell said. “Based on the data and the science, we are hopeful the administration recognizes high school athletics are safe for students and are actually in their best interest.”
Football players, coaches, and parents rally for the "Let Them Play" initiative to resume fall sports as originally scheduled at the Michigan capitol building in Lansing, on August 28, 2020.
Let Them Play lawyer shares evidence
that high school sports are safe
Ruddell shared the letter that spells out the group’s case for reinstating all high school sports. The letter offers a six-part argument with the headings “Data and science supports resumption of youth sports,” “Experience from other states confirms safety of youth sports,” “Team sports are part of a student-athlete’s education,” “Education achievement is linked to athletic opportunities,” “Racial and economic inequities are growing,” and “Economic and education pathways are closing.”
If the MDHHS doesn’t act on the request, Ruddell said the Let Them Play group then has the option of suing the state of Michigan. That could send the matter before the courts.
“The governor has a very high batting average in these cases,” Ruddell said. “The courts have been very deferential to the governor’s declaration of emergency. But this is a different case. There are different issues at play that have not been litigated so far.”
Let Them Play leaders feel they have science and data on their side.
The letter sent to the MDHHS cites a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin that found “participation in sports is not associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 among high school athletes.” That study showed that of the 209 positive cases among players in Wisconsin, only one was attributed to participation in sports.
“What makes this a strong case is our data,” said McElvany, a Monroe business owner and mother of a Milan High School athlete. “They refuse to show the data they’re using to shut sports down. We are doing the opposite.
“We’re basically telling the new director, ‘This is why we should be playing, here is the data. We’re asking you to change (former director
Robert Gordon’s) executive order and move sports forward like everything else in the state.’
“Hopefully she’ll say ‘We understand. Let’s do this before it needs to go to court.’”
The Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan, Michigan Wrestling Association and Competitive Cheer Coaches Association of Michigan have each written letters in recent days to Gov. Whitmer.
Let Them Play has another rally planned for noon Saturday, Jan. 30, at the Capitol and is banking on a large turnout of athletes, coaches and parents.
McElvany said the group’s following on its Facebook page grew by 6,500 over the weekend after the latest extension was announced.
Most notably, she said, is the growing number of high school administrators who are joining the cause.
“We’re getting a much bigger response from the coaches and ADs,” she said. “They are fired up and ready to fight. Until now, most of them were not willing to say much, but I think everybody is finally saying enough is enough.”
Michigan is one of the last state’s in the nation to OK the return of high
school sports. All states that border Michigan have resumed athletic activity.
Most believed Michigan was about to join them on Feb. 1. But the emergency order, while relaxing restrictions for restaurants, gyms, bowling centers, movie theaters and more, was extended for contact
sports. And Let Them Play renewed the fight it believed was over.
“We would prefer not to take it to court,” McElvany said. “But we are 100 percent ready.”
There is also a growing sentiment in boys basketball coaching circles to ditch the MHSAA season and instead create club teams that would play out of state on the weekends, with some Catholic High School League coaches leading the way.
Defending CHSL Central champion Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Preparatory saw a good bulk of its lineup form a club team late last year and travel to prep school tournaments out of state for competition under the team name Michigan Elite.
The MHSAA adapts its sports schedule
to deal with continued delays
The representative council of the MHSAA approved an adjusted regular-season calendar for indoor winter sports on Dec. 23.
All winter sports activity, with the exception of boys and girls skiing, were paused. It was planned that if the MDHHS order was rescinded as expected on or before Jan. 15, indoor practices would begin again Jan. 16, with first competitions Jan. 22 for basketball, bowling, boys hockey, and boys swimming and diving; and Jan. 25 for competitive cheer, gymnastics and wrestling.
Instead, the pause was continued and only competitions in skiing have begun.
The council also approved one-year changes to competition limits in boys hockey and wrestling. In hockey, teams may play two games on one non-school day on two dates this season – with four games total during those two weeks when this opportunity is utilized. Wrestling teams are allowed two dates of competition per week this season, with competition limited to four teams at a site (and three matches per student per day of competition). Those rules only come into play those sports are allowed to begin.
The council also approved changes to the winter tournament schedule. That schedule will now have to be revamped yet again, due to the updated emergency order from the MDHHS.
“We are unable to provide specific plans yet as we are still evaluating the best options for delivering a memorable experience for 60,000 athletes involved in winter contact sports. We will continue asking questions and advocating for all of our schools and athletes as we work toward building our next plans for seasons in basketball, competitive cheer, ice hockey and wrestling. We will be ready with specific timelines as soon as MDHHS clears contact sports to begin full activity,” said Mark Uyl, executive director of the MHSAA.
“We have said from the start of the 2020-21 school year that we would do everything possible to have three seasons, and play all three to completion. Our strong advocacy for all sports and seasons – and especially Winter sports – continues every day.”
Most of the winter sports championships were set to conclude in late March. The current situation will push those dates into April or beyond. This would push back the start of spring sports and could see championships concluded after the school year ends.