After nearly a month of COVID-19-driven discussions, all high school sports, including football and girls soccer, now have the ability to begin contact activities after decisions from Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and the TSSAA.
A new order from the governor's office, Executive Order No. 55, will allow for contact sports to start immediately, provided they go by the TSSAA guidelines. This is part of the governor's official plan to reopen schools safely this August.
"Non-TSSAA schools must follow equivalent guidelines, and non-school-sponsored athletics should follow the Tennessee Pledge guidelines," the update reads. "An update to the Pledge guidelines will be forthcoming."
In response to the decision, the TSSAA waived its restriction on contact sports and said contact practice can begin immediately and seasons can now start on time.
“We appreciate being able to work with Gov. Lee and his staff on this,” said Bernard Childress, Executive Director of the TSSAA, in a release. “I am pleased that we were able to develop some very specific guidelines for every sport that will allow our kids to get out on their fields and fully participate in football and girls’ soccer this fall."
The organization maintains its other adopted COVID-19 guidelines are still in place.
“Children across the state are counting on us--school administrators and coaches--to proceed with practices and competitions safely while being very mindful of the requirements and modifications that we have put in place,” Childress said in the release. “Our return to play is a partnership, and it’s important for everyone to do their part.”
Before now, all TSSAA-sponsored schools had been prohibited from engaging in contact activity, halting most all football and girls soccer play and limiting other sports like basketball and wrestling from practice.
The TSSAA voted last week on two plans that would meet this exact scenario. Part of those plans would've postponed both sports' seasons to September at the earliest if Gov. Lee's original Executive Order No. 50, which limited regular contact sports, had stayed in place past its original lapsing date of Aug. 29.
However, the TSSAA's second part of its plans was to wait to see what the governor's office would do by Aug. 3. If the executive order barring limited contact would've been changed as it now has, the seasons would've started immediately, which they now will. If that date would've come and gone, there would've at least been a slight delay for both football and girls soccer.
With all the decisions made, football and girl soccer will indeed start on their planned regular season dates on the original 2020-21 TSSAA calendar. Though, all scrimmages, jamborees and differing school practices are still barred by the TSSAA as part of its pandemic guidelines.
While girls soccer can start as needed, football teams must still go through two-day heat acclimatization before full contact practices (two days helmet only, three days helmet and shoulder pads), per the TSSAA.
“This is good news for many kids and their families,” Childress said in the rlease, “but the reality is that the virus will continue to be with us and we have to be smart about taming the spread. Every adult and every participant in every sport must do their part and follow the guidelines set forth by TSSAA and the Governor’s office to help mitigate these risks.”
These decisions do not rule out the possibility for a season cancellation or delaying once things get underway. No exact plan has been issued from anyone involved in the process between the governor's office and the TSSAA yet as to what would happen if a season postponement or cancellation was necessary due to outbreaks.
One situation to monitor will be ongoing attempt to bring sports back in the pros. The Miami Marlins baseball team has seen a multi-case outbreak of COVID-19 in its organization, which has halted any baseball activity and could put the entire MLB season in jeopardy if outbreaks continue. Unlike the NBA and NHL, the MLB is not operating in a "bubble" atmosphere, which isolates athletes and team personnel from the public and does not allow for fan attendance.
High school sports do not operate in any such situation either, and the TSSAA has ruled to allow various school systems the opportunity to decide fan attendance for themselves.
Outbreaks are certainly possible once contact play and fan-attended games resume, though the TSSAA does have guidelines for COVID-19 in place, which includes regular temperature checks for all involved, including fans.
Another difference between preps and higher levels like college and the pros is the ability to do frequent COVID-19 tests. The TSSAA has already gone on record to say continual testing on teams will not be possible due to financial limitations for the schools.
Gov. Lee threw confidence behind the TSSAA's plan in his Tuesday press conference on the plan when asked about what's happening in the MLB and the potential for outbreaks in preps.
"Our expectation is that if the guidelines by the TSSAA are followed, then we'll be able to move forward with those contact sports, but we also know that reasonable, practical approaches have to be made considering COVID-19 in order to be able to finish the season," Lee said. "So we will see how that develops, but our anticipation is that we can move through that safely."
Preps football, girls soccer, volleyball and cross country will now keep on as scheduled to begin games in August, while golf began play this week.