Pleasant Hill and Hicks High School play the Louisiana boys’ state championship Class C game in a largely empty Burton Coliseum in Lake Charles.
Michigan is six weeks into a pandemic battle. One of the first casualties was high school sports.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed schools for the remainder of the school year across the state on March 16, sidelining the state’s youth athletes.
The winter sports of boys and girls basketball, boys swimming, gymnastics, and boys and girls hockey didn’t get a chance to complete their championships.
Teams playing baseball, softball, boys golf, boys and girls lacrosse, boys and girls track and field, girls soccer, and girls tennis didn’t even get a chance to begin their seasons this spring.
The start of the 2020-21 school year and the first football games and other fall sports (boys and girls cross country, girls golf, boys soccer, girls swimming, boys tennis, and volleyball) seem so far away at this point as we are still under a stay-at-home order.
The first high school sports practices are scheduled to begin in August, before school is scheduled to begin.
“We should be back to normal by then, right?” athletic directors, coaches, players, and parents wishfully ask themselves.
But school officials, athletic directors and coaches across the state will be sailing in uncharted waters to navigate a return to competition in the wake of the pandemic.
There is no way to know how the Coronavirus crisis will play out at this time or even if high school sports will be able to start again next school year. Decisions will change constantly throughout the spring and summer as the state and nation fight to contain the virus and executive orders are issued by the governor.
While it’s critical for school leaders to put optimistic restart scenarios in place, there is no certainty any of these plans will work without buy-in from politicians and approvals from parents, players and medical experts.
One thing is known – once it returns, high school sports in Michigan and across the country will likely be very different than the normal we have been used to. The effects of the pandemic will impact youth sports for years to come.
Here are a few scenarios on how it could play out:
Scenario one: Back to normal as scheduled
In this possible future, the state’s and nation’s fight against the virus goes better than expected — and school begins in the fall on time. Government, health and school officials determine social distancing rules are no longer needed to help ease the spread of the virus. High school sports return with little change. Football games are played in front of stands filled with students, teachers, parents and relatives. The band, cheerleaders, and dance squads perform at halftime. Other spring sports take the field as before. Life returns to normal.
This scenario offers the least disruption for students and staff, but also has higher health risks because of the lack of social distancing if a vaccine or treatment isn’t developed by August. Michigan Senate Republicans recently offered a five-phase plan to restart the economy in the state. Allowing large gatherings, such as sporting events, wouldn’t be allowed until phase five of the plan, when no active spread of the coronavirus has been reported for 30 days or a vaccine has been available for 30 days. Thus it will be months before knowing if this scenario is possible.
Scenario two: Players hit the field without fans, with many safety precautions, and severe budget issues
This is a very-likely scenario. Health and school officials determine it is safe for sports to return to high schools, but with numerous safety precautions. The main one being no fans allowed, possibly not even parents.
South Korea recently restarted it professional baseball league. When athletes and other team employees enter a building or stadium, their temperature is taken. Same-day testing is available, with a four-hour turnaround. If someone tests positive, they are immediately sent to a quarantine unit and subject to a thorough contact tracing protocol. Stadiums are equipped with a camera that detects if your lungs are inflamed. Every part of the stadium is sanitized. Teams demand players to wipe down equipment after using it.
It’s hard to imagine a high school athletic department being able to implement such procedures.
The type and level of precautions needed to safely have players return to the field will be debated for months. With so many unknowns about how the virus will continue to spread over the spring and summer, it creates many more unanswered questions than answered questions at this time.
If it’s not safe to have fans in the stands, how can it be safe to have players, coaches, officials, and other necessary personnel on a field or court?
If students are attending school together, why wouldn’t it be safe for them to be in the stands?
Without fans in the stands, would high school bands, cheerleaders, and dance teams still perform?
Will participants be required to be tested for the virus before being allowed on the field? If so, how will this work and who will pay for the testing? Would preseason physicals include a COVID-19 test requirement?
Will masks be required to be worn, even by players?
Will close-contact sports like football, wrestling, and basketball be treated differently than no-contact sports like tennis and golf?
What happens when the first player or coach or referee tests positive or dies from the virus because we restarted high school sports. What are the legal ramifications for schools if this happens?
Would team travel be limited, causing havoc with league scheduling where some opponents are a long drive away.
Would teams still be allowed to participate in multiple-team tournaments or showcases outside the MHSAA playoffs?
For high school sports to return safely, fans, like these at Detroit Catholic Central, may not be allowed at games.
On the surface, in exchange for getting students back on the playing field, not allowing fans seems to be a suitable tradeoff. Most plans for college and professional sports leagues to return include empty stadiums.
But playing in front of no fans could cause a financial crisis for high schools and leagues.
During the regular season, individual schools would be making the decision to allow fans or not, based on guidance from health officials and the state government. With the first games scheduled for late August, it is possible schools make the decision to begin with no fans and allow them later in the fall season. It is also possible that schools in some areas of Michigan with few cases of the virus allow fans and schools in other parts of the state still suffering from the virus do not.
Without the revenues from ticket, concession, merchandise, and raffle sales at games, athletic directors would be forced to make difficult budget decisions. In fact, an overwhelming majority of schools lean on the football gate money to prop up the other sports programs.
The governing body of high school sports in Michigan, the Michigan High School Athletic Association, generates a significant portion of its revenue from playoff ticket sales and it would be making the decision if fans would be allowed in the stands during these events. The organization would have additional time to make their decisions, as the first playoff games or tournaments wouldn’t occur until October.
The organization already lost significant revenues with the cancellation of half of the winter sports playoffs and entire spring sports playoffs. With no fans in the seats in playoff games, the MHSAA may not have the resources to put on these events.
The financial issues for athletic departments will be further compounded by the unemployment and business closures caused by the pandemic. There are significant costs involved in high school athletics — from paying people to work at games, paying officials, paying for travel, paying for equipment, paying for upkeep of fields and facilities, paying for insurance, and much more.
Public and charter schools could have less funding from the state and religious and private schools most likely would have fewer students, as parents, affected by the downturn, send their children back to public or charter schools.
This could mean some sports being eliminated in their entirety at some schools. High-overhead sports that require off-site facilities such as hockey could be on the chopping block, as could smaller sports that don’t bring in enough revenue to cover costs. Freshman and junior varsity sports could also be eliminated or cut back. Schedules could be altered to reduce travel costs and also increase player safety. The number of games could be cut.
Booster club sponsorships are probably going to become much more difficult to secure as well. Most high school sports sponsors are local small businesses. With the recession worsening, it's hard to imagine booster club sponsorships not being heavily impacted — perhaps for an extended period of time.
Scenario three: High school sports are cancelled until the virus is contained
The final scenario is one that sees the virus continuing to affect significant portions of the Michigan population and health and school officials determine high school sports should be cancelled or schools continue to be closed until further notice. This is the future no one wants to happen. This scenario could happen if the virus proves difficult to contain and spreads in long-lasting waves around the state, nation, and globe. A variation of this scenario sees the high school sports season beginning in the fall as the virus seems to be contained and then having to be halted once again due to a recurrence of the virus later in the year during the flu season.