Let the practices and games begin.
High schools sports in the state of Florida are returning, even amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Florida High School Athletic Association’s board members (FHSAA) last week voted 11-5 to allow member schools to begin fall sports on Aug. 24.
It marks a long time coming, as state high school sports have been in a holding pattern since mid-March — and the fall sports start date was postponed once already, from the original July 27 start date.
Per the approved plan, Aug. 24 will be the first allowable practice date, with regular seasons permitted to begin on Sept. 4 for all six fall sports (bowling, cross-country, football, golf, swimming & diving, and volleyball).
State tournaments for those fall sports are scheduled to be wrapped up in November with the exception of football, which is to be complete around mid-December.
The board’s action also includes an important amendment allowing schools to opt out of the state series by Sept. 18, and work with FHSAA staff to set their own sports calendar, as they see fit.
As explained, if a particular school or district isn’t comfortable beginning any sports until, say, a few months from now, the FHSAA would work with them on organizing that for the 2020-2021 school year.
Under this scenario, a school or district would not be eligible for the traditional state championships, however. They would simply participate in a regionalized schedule flexible for any and all sports in which they want to participate. For example, a school district could choose to have some or all sports play from January onward.
Also, as part of the return-to-play model, there will not be a minimum contest limit to be eligible for the state series, should schools or districts not opt out by Sept. 18.
In other words, a particular football program would still be eligible for the postseason if they played, say, six games, instead of the regular 10-game schedule.
That could prove beneficial for Pasco County, which has announced fall sports tryouts won’t begin until Sept. 7, putting them a couple weeks behind other counties. Hillsborough County, meanwhile, plans to follow the FHSAA’s direction, beginning tryouts Aug. 24.
Disregarding medical advice
The FHSAA decision to all but immediately ramp up fall sports was far from easy — taking more than two hours of heated dialogue among board members during an Aug. 14 meeting at the Best Western Grand in Gainesville. The meeting was live-streamed for public viewing.
The decision also contradicts a unanimous recommendation from the FHSAA’s 14-member Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC). That committee strongly advised that sports not begin in any part of the state until the coronavirus is controlled, and declining in state and local regions. They also want to be able to study the impact of reopening schools on the COVID-19 infection rate, for at least a few weeks.
The medicine advisory committee was open to the idea of considering an alternate proposal that would delay fall sports until Oct. 12, provided appropriate scientific measures were used to determine the safe return to sports and the ability to practice and play.
Dr. Jennifer Roth Maynard, a Family & Sports Medicine Consultant at the Jacksonville-based Florida Mayo Clinic, explained SMAC’s reasoning to the board.
“Looking at specifically the data, it’s all quite concerning,” Maynard said. “We are improving in certain areas and we are getting worse in certain areas, and my fear from a medical perspective is, until this virus is given the respect it deserves to quiet down, we, by just introducing sports are adding fuel to the fire.”
FHSAA board members, such as Mark Schusterman who voted against the Aug. 24 plan, heeded Maynard’s advice throughout the lengthy meeting.
“I think we’re getting away from the science aspect,” said Schusterman, co-athletic director at Miami’s Riviera Preparatory School. “That’s what concerns me — the health of kids, the health of coaches, the health of officials, and the future of some of these kids.
“I think we have a responsibility to make a sound decision based on the medicine and the science,” he said.
Lee County School Board member Chris Patricca concurred, adding it’s “incredibly, incredibly difficult” for school districts to navigate an athletics season all while trying to manage an ever-changing landscape of COVID-19 considerations.
“Here we are opening schools with the understanding that we’re going to have to adapt, and throwing sports on top of that, it feels like it’s setting us up for failure, and we can’t do it all correctly.
“I’ve gotta make this decision from the perspective of what’s fair and what’s safe, and my SMAC committee is telling me the safest thing to do. How do I ignore the medical advice?” Patricca said.
She also observed a lack of equity in competition should larger counties like Miami-Dade and Broward opt out of the state series by the Sept. 18 deadline.
She argued it would render state playoffs and state championships less meaningful, for a particular athlete or school, whether it’s in football or some other sport.
“It’s kind of like the 1984 Olympics when Russia wasn’t there. (American gymnast) Mary Lou Retton wasn’t, like, a real gold medalist,” Patricca said.
‘Let Us Play’
The majority of board members voting in favor of bringing sports back on Aug. 24 cited an overwhelming amount of support from student-athletes, parents, and even sport officials and school superintendents, from their respective district.
That point was emphasized when Jamie and Tami Kent spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting.
As parents of a Tampa Cambridge Christian High School football player, they created an online petition titled “Let Us Play” attracting over 40,000 signatures urging the FHSAA to begin the fall sports season this month.
“I’m standing before you for 40,000 people that are asking you to make a decision to let sports happen,” said Jamie Kent, addressing the board.
The Kents argued that athletics provides critical structure and well-being in a child’s life, while also stating an obvious point that high school seniors won’t get another year of eligibility.
“We know that you are making a decision in unprecedented times, but I am telling you to listen to the voices of the people,” Jamie Kent added. “As much as you are listening to the voices of experts, as parents, we’re asking you to listen to us.”
Those voices were heard, by the end of the day.
“It may not be manageable, but I have a hard time us sitting here telling all of those people that want to give it a shot and are willing to bear that burden, that we’re not going to give them that opportunity,” said Bobby Johns, an athletic director at Wewahitchka High School in Gulf County, and one of the 11 yes votes.
Sue Tortora, an administrator at Montverde Academy in Lake County, said she’s received roughly 300 emails from constituents in favor of proceeding with high school sports.
“Our people in this state are crying out for a date,” Tortora said. “I agree that this is a worrisome time, but kids are going to do what kids are going to do, and if you don’t think a lot of those kids aren’t out there now, getting together, gathering, playing a little football on the side — you can’t put them in a bubble.”
She also said the amendment for schools to opt out of the state series and design their own independent schedule “is a wonderful compromise” as “it allows everybody to participate (in athletics) in some way or some form.”
Citizen at-large FHSAA board member Chalmus Thomas put it into perspective, too.
“I don’t think of any communities or superintendents that aren’t thinking of safety first, but we can’t sit in a shell,” he said. “Athletics has been something that pulls communities together, pulls this country together. We realize that safety is our first priority, but we must move forward.”
FHSAA executive director George Tomyn perhaps best summed up the board’s decision, which came at his recommendation.
“I’ve always thought of what can we do for our member schools, not what we cannot or will not be able to do,” Tomyn said at the meeting.
“I’m a firm believer in flexibility, especially in this challenging, challenging time that we’re in. I’m a firm believer in parental choice, and I’m a firm believer in local decision-making.”
He emphasized this point: “There is no requirement for students to play a sport. There’s no requirement for a school to have a team sport. And finally, let’s not forget, our schools are opening. They are opening. Our governor and commissioner of education are insistent that our schools reopen, and know that extracurricular activities and athletic activities are part of that school opening.”
Elsewhere, the board voted to make a COVID-19 waiver form available to all schools, and require all coaches to view the NFHS (National Federation of State High School Associations) virtual course, “COVID-19 for Coaches and Administrators.”
Published August 19, 2029