By Joseph Hayes
A few weeks ago, even the thought of having a fall high school football season appeared to be wishful thinking.
The governor of Michigan had already signed executive orders that changed the landscape of competition because of social distancing guidelines.
That led to plenty of protests from athletes and their parents, that showed up in Lansing to place pressure on the government to allow athletes to play.
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In the past few days, it appears as if that pressure has worked and much of the past conjecture has gone out of the window.
Now, high school sports have returned and even football is back in season.
But what does that actually mean for athletes? Not only football players, but all of the sports supposedly in season?
There is now one major caveat that surely threw coaches, administrators and even athletes for a loop after the various postponements.
With the return of sports, there will be plenty on the line now, including the health of the athletes.
Sports might be back in session, but games such as football, soccer and volleyball will now require athletes to wear facial coverings. Momentarily the ruling also included cross country, but the order was soon after changed.
Meanwhile, that left coaches all in a similar situation. Of course they want to play, but at what cost?
“Honestly without these clarifications it would have basically ended our season,” veteran Croswell-Lexington cross country coach Lisa Shaw said. “I could not see any coach requiring their runners to race 3.1 in a mask. Some kids would have tried, I am sure, for their love of the sport. I have kids on my team with asthma. At what point does the damage of racing all out in a mask become more dangerous than the risk of exposure. Which is low in our noncontact sport.
“We did not take the previous safety requirements lightly either. They were expected to socially distance and wear masks while not actively running at meets and practice. We did not allow spectators at our first meets. They are screened and temperature checked each day. We had zoom meetings with league and Thumb coaches to best plan meets and stay within guidelines. Everyone agreed to eliminating those big invitationals to keep our sport competing and our runners safe. Coaches are networking to create smaller meets to give runners opportunities.
“Then the texts start coming Labor Day weekend. It took the wind out of my sails. I thought like I have so many times already. I can’t let these runners lose hope. I am going to keep staying positive. They need my voice of reason. I kept telling my runners that this could not be a requirement for our sport. Give it a few days and reason will prevail. I am just glad that Whitmer was willing to clarify. That gives them one more practice, one more competition. Honestly we know every time they race is a blessing. These kids are just happy to be able to meet, run and compete at a sport they love.”
So with a few changes, the season was back on and cross country runners and athletes all around the area had a little more hope.
But also, plenty of questions. I spent the bulk of Thursday talking to local coaches on and off the record about their thoughts concerning the ruling.
The reactions were similar. They all appeared happy and eager to be able to compete again. But they also appeared concerned about their athletes health, if they were required to compete with a mouthpiece and a mask.
Anyone who has played sports before would understand. What would it feel like to be fatigued in a game, while competing with a mask, mouthpiece or both.
“Throughout the summer, I went to 60 baseball games,” Richmond coach Scott Evans said. I was at Canton and other parks that were hosting huge tourneys. I only saw one team using the masks. Everyone just played baseball. Several umpires who were high risk, wore masks all the time. Parents for the most part wore masks and social distanced.
“I understand why (Whitmer) is saying it. Ultimately, I feel she is worried about another jump in cases (outbreak) then she would need to take more executive action to limit people. Not arguing the merits, just stating the facts we have. But as a former athlete, I cannot imagine playing a sports having my airway compromised in anyway. Especially inside where many gyms do not have ideal circulation?
“What about wrestlers? How are they gonna handle it. In football, would you not be worried about safety. Like if by accident a player grabbed the neck gaitor? If we agree to let kids play, I feel we should let them play free of the face covering.”
What Shaw and Evans spoke of each hold plenty of merits. Because of the new rules limiting how many participants that can be spectators at events, it will also lead to one of the most abnormal high school sports seasons in state history.
We can only hope that when we look back on it, there are plenty of positive lasting memories and not health related consequences.