Do we really think football and girls soccer are going to happen on time?
After the TSSAA made a decision last week to continue conversations with Gov. Bill Lee's office on that very thing rather than decide now on a plan, things got even more confusing for people wondering what might happen with high school athletics over the next month.
On one end, the TSSAA has been admirable throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to give Tennessee's athletes a chance at sports seasons. No one wanted to see spring sports canceled — it was a great tragedy for all the preps athletes who had worked hard for a chance at playing out seasons to lose out on that very thing.
And the TSSAA was right then to let the pandemic play out, as uncharted of waters as we've had in quite some time, before making a final decision. It was commendable to give spring athletes every possible chance to resume competition. It may have never been likely, but there was no reason to pull out the rug right away on the possibility.
Eventually, spring sports, as well as the in-progress state basketball tournaments, were no more. It was an awful thing, but the absolute right call. Safety must always come first, no matter if the consequences of safety mean no sports.
Fall sports, indeed, face the same grim possibilities. But the decision-making for fall for the TSSAA has taken a markedly different direction.
Football and girls soccer teams across the state have no direction whatsoever right now with what to do outside of conditioning and basic practice, with a deeply irresponsible gate being left open to think that engaging in regular contact activity as soon as this month would be a good idea.
It wouldn't be smart in any way, shape or form to keep the calendars for these sports as they are right now. As badly as all of us want football and girls soccer to have seasons free of restriction and hassle, we can't have our preps athletes running added risks of contracting this virus than they already face. It wouldn't just put them at risk; it would put the families and communities they live in at risk at well.
Gov. Lee's Executive Order 50, limiting regular contact sports for high school athletes through Aug. 29, was wise. The TSSAA is rightly supporting this, limiting contact at the moment and thus creating an inherent delay, but no one can really prepare for the future on until a contingency plan is in place or restrictions are loosened to walk back the plan in place now.
COVID-19 cases continue to surge throughout the state in comparison to other places in the country, and states like Virginia and New Mexico have already gone to the extreme lengths of moving football to the spring. Others will delay; some will, somehow, start on time at the moment.
Consider the situation in Texas, the world capitol of high school football and the home of Friday Night Lights.
Dallas Independent School District Michael Hinojosa said he doesn't even think football will be possible this fall, per the Forth Worth Star-Telegram.
“That’s a true contact sport, I don’t see how we can pull that off,” Dallas ISD superintendent Hinojosa said to MSNBC correspondent Garrett Haake in the article. “There’s been some discussion of moving it to the spring, but we’ll have to wait and see. I don’t, I seriously doubt that we can pull that off.”
That's a major school official from the Lone Star State, casting doubt on football happening this fall. Texas continues to be one of the hardest-hit places this summer for COVID-19, so it makes perfect sense he'd be wary.
Though, Gov. Lee struck a different tone this week, saying he feels that football and soccer will be "part of the landscape" this fall in the state.
With pro and college teams, that's an easier promise than it is for football and soccer at the high school level.
TSSAA Executive Director Bernard Childress pointed out earlier this month that rampant testing, needed to keep athletes in close contact with one another safe during this pandemic, is not possible at the preps level due to a lack of funding for individual schools. It's very fair to argue that, at the very least, we'd need continuous testing to do this responsibly for preps sports.
Opening schools on time is, in and of itself, a gargantuan task in a COVID-19 world. Metro Nashville will be delaying having its students on-site through Labor Day at the earliest, and Williamson County Schools is taking leaps and bounds to ensure that, when students come back on Aug. 7, things are handled as safely as possible and that distancing and masks are maintained as much as they can be. No one is forced to attend, either.
But you can't really wear a cloth mask when you play football in the summer heat. It's hard enough to accustom yourself to pads on a humid late July practice during two-a-days, much less wear some sort of restrictive covering meant to protect you from disease.
Having contact preps football or girls soccer at any point before September right now would be, at least in this writer's opinion, fundamentally ridiculous and abhorrently unsafe for the state's preps athletes. Even volleyball feels a little risky at the moment, though it does not qualify as a contact sport.
Golf and cross country feel OK. It's not that those sports are special, but think about the distancing you can do in both; amateur golf is already happening right now, safely. It's even fair to argue you can wear a mask in both if need be.
In an inherent sense, most of the sports this fall will assume at least some risk before we have a vaccine. It's fair to question if any contact sports will be possible this fall if COVID-19 cases don't go down substantially and stay there in the next two months.
But we can argue the "should" aspect of this all day long. You may disagree with me on the risk that's assumed by playing sports, but we can all agree that answers are needed sooner than later.
Football and girls soccer teams can't stay in limbo for much longer. Football teams in particular need to get underway in a timely fashion in order to help players get into game shape with pads, get comfortable with contact for the year and familiarize themselves with the playbooks.
There are substantial health risks with injuries and potential concussions when football players are not prepared for the gridiron. Sometimes, those are unavoidable due to the nature of the sport. But they happen much less when athletes are properly prepared for playing. The same is true for girls soccer.
It's hypothetically understandable that if the governor's office left a gate open for resumed play in August, the TSSAA would want to let this draw this out just a little longer. But it feels like a different kind of delay, a delaying of the inevitable.
Unless we just throw caution out the window and just grit our teeth in the possibility of COVID-19 outbreaks, football and girls soccer can't happen on time this fall. It's a sincere question right now if they can happen altogether.
But like it did in the spring, the TSSAA should give these athletes every chance possible at a season. It should also give them, their hard-working coaches and dedicated parents and fans, some sort of responsible direction. Right now, it feels like it's not there.
It feels like time for the TSSAA to do the right thing and vote on a contingency plan for the fall for football and outright delay the girls soccer season. We know the organization has made wise calls in the past; why not double down on them?
There were good plans presented, plans that, though not ultimately guaranteed, would consider the situation we're in and keep hope alive for the possibility for football and girls soccer right now.
Making delaying plans now would also give the state until the end of August to see if it can collectively drive COVID-19 numbers down to where it, maybe, just maybe, might be OK to let kids play these sports in a responsible way.
Perhaps that's not inherently possible until we have a widespread vaccine. But it will show, like it did in the spring, that the TSSAA is willing to give it a chance.
Continued delays on making a plan both ignore the common sense that starting on time for these sports just doesn't make sense right now and puts sports highly dependent on set plans in a frustrating situation.
No one, including the person writing this column, wants to see fall sports suffer the same fate as spring sports. It make you a little queasy at the possibility. But safety always has to come first, and right now, safety says loudly to permanently delay the seasons.
Let's give the kids a proper chance at being able to play, but let's also not fool ourselves. Let the justified frustration for the times we're in overtake unfair frustrations in the lack of a concrete plan.
Football and girls soccer are not happening in August responsibly. I'd recommend you go ahead and make plans for that reality.
Give everyone in the preps world some firm, safe direction right now in a world where certainty feels impossible.