The seven-day average of Michigan COVID-19 cases was 7.072 on Nov. 14. On Nov. 15, the state "paused" high school sports. The rate peaked at 7,270 on Nov. 20. On Feb. 2, the average was only 1,422, yet the pause is still in effect for contact sports.
Updated Feb. 4, 2021
Despite seeing COVID-19 cases in Michigan drop dramatically over the past two months, winter "contact" sports in the state are still on pause -- and the frustration is reaching a boiling point as a grass roots group has filed a lawsuit to begin these sports.
The final three Michigan High School Athletic Association’s fall championships (football, volleyball, and girls swimming and diving) were successfully completed on Jan. 23 -- 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 and it has many worried that winter sports will not be played.
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 in Michigan and the fact that 47 states had at least provided a start date for all sports, and all border states like Ohio and Indiana were allowing sports competition, the MDHHS extended the pause for the start of winter sports to Jan. 15, then to Feb. 1, and currently to Feb. 21.
The MDHHS has not guaranteed the current pause will be even be lifted then. The department has also not provided the exact metrics needed to allow contact sports to be played.
Photo: Port Huron Times Herald
Marine City boys basketball players stretch during a recent practice.
COVID-19 metrics in Michigan
continue to fall dramatically
Gov. Whitmer said in early January that the state would “seriously consider” lifting protocols sooner than the then Jan. 15 end date, 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 3,239 on Dec. 28, and fell to 1,977 on Jan. 20 and continues to fall (1,422 on Feb. 2). 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 Feb. 1.
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 only to be met with no additional information from the state.
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 on Jan. 25. "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 Jan. 23 that the University of Michigan
pause its athletic programs because of variant cases. The university announced a two-week pause the same day.
The MDHHS released the following statement ion Jan. 25 in response to why the high school contact 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.220.127.116.11 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 from their original schedule.
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.
Vitti wrote to Gov. Whitmer on Jan. 25 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 Jan. 25.
“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 rallies at the Capitol Building in Lansing -- incorporated as a non-profit organization and retained legal representation to take the matter to the courts.
Lansing attorney Peter Ruddell took the first step in representing the group, issuing a letter Jan. 25 to Elizabeth Hertel, the newly named director of the MDHHS.
“We sent a letter to the new director this morning (Jan. 25), 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.”
Athletes, parents and coaches show gather during the "Let Them Play" rally outside the Michigan Capitol building in Lansing, on Saturday, January 30, 2021.
Let Them Play, parents ask court for injuction on MDHSS pause of contact sports
The letter from Ruddell spelled out the group’s case for reinstating all high school sports. The letter offered 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.”
Despite the pleas in the letter, the MDHSS did not lift the current ban on winter contact sports.
Finally, Ruddell, on behalf of Let Them Play, filed paperwork with the Michigan Court of Claims on Feb. 2 against Hertel, claiming the MDHHS has provided "no evidence" citing that high school athletes are at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19.
The plaintiffs asked the court to intervene on the health department's decision to allow nothing more than what amounts to individual drill work for these sports.
The suit is a step the coalition "would have preferred not to take," said Ruddell. "Unforunately, there is no other place for citizens to appeal a decision that restricts the parents’ and the student-athletes’ ability to pursue a key component of their public education,” he said. “The ban on athletic practice and competitions has restricted the ability of these and many other student-athletes from achieving their career pathway – competing, practicing and potentially gaining a college scholarship.”
Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Michigan Amateur Youth Hockey League and the parents of five high school athletes.
The lawsuit alleges the state’s COVID-19 restrictions are unconstitutional because they deny students equal protection under the law, due process and the right to free assembly, among other things.
The state order "arbitrarily and irrationally singles out and deprives" high school athletes of "their rights and freedoms to associate with other students and engage in athletic competitions," attorneys wrote. The state
is treating older collegiate and professional athletes differently from younger high school athletes "without any rational basis for the disparate treatment.”
A spokesperson for Gov. Whitmer declined comment on the new legal action, saying that the administration “does not make decisions based on lawsuits, but on data and the ongoing advice of public health experts.”
Let Them Play had another rally at the Capitol on Jan. 30 with a large turnout of athletes, coaches and parents.
The MHSAA adapts its sports schedule
to deal with continued delay
The representative council of the MHSAA approved an adjusted regular-season calendar for winter sports way back on Dec. 23, anticipating the MDHSS would lift its ban on contact sports in early January.
Due to the continued restrictions, only competitions in skiing, gymnastics and bowling have begun. The scheduled start dates for competition in boys and girls basketball, boys hockey, boys swimming and diving, competitive cheer, and wrestling have now long passed.
That schedule will now have to be revamped yet again once again when the MDHSS finally allows contact sports to be played.
“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 and dramatically shorten the regular seasons. This would push back the start of spring sports and could see spring championships concluded after the school year ends.