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Defining week for high school sports

By Dan Hardenbrook

It’s been 75 days since high school sports took a time out. After weeks of wondering what the future of high school sports could look like, the answers will be coming soon.

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has issued a 16-page document titled “Guidance for Opening Up High School Athletics and Activities”. The packet is intended to provide individual states and athletic associations guidelines and recommendations for resuming summer workouts, practices, and eventually, games. The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) is one of the 51 members of the NFHS, and says they will use the document as part of their discussions to bring back sports in Michigan.

The NFHS sent the document to its member associations earlier this month and released it to the public last week. While the rules were developed and advised by top medical professionals, the NFHS says that they are not the law. States rely on the NFHS to develop rule books for specific sports and provide a platform for national conferences and conversations. By-laws and policies vary and individual associations will take the guidelines and form a plan that is specific to their state’s current status.

In response to the NFHS guidelines being released, the MHSAA has notified its member school athletic directors that they will be announcing how they intend to resume sports in Michigan as early as this week. The MHSAA plan is said to be a joint effort between the MHSAA, the NFHS, and both organizations’ Sports Medicine advisory committees. The group includes physicians, medical professionals, and school administrators.

With the spring sports season cancelled, the short term focus is on the summer workout and training season. Phase one of the NFHS Guidelines covers this time period. Among the recommendations, the NFHS says that each school should institute “pre-workout screenings” which would include all coaches and players being checked for signs and symptoms of Covid-19, temperature checks for each participant, responses to screening questions documented in case of an infection, and not allowing anyone with positive symptoms to oversee or participate. Groups should be 10 or less and workouts conducted in “pods” of 5-10 athletes each. The NFHS believes these measures will limit widespread exposure. All athletes and sports must follow six foot social distancing rules.

The NFHS also has a list of specific sanitizing and cleaning requirements, including prohibiting any shared equipment, cleaning of all equipment and facilities after each individual use, and no use of facilities for changing or showering.

Guidelines include:

A basketball player can shoot with a ball(s), but a team should not practice/pass a single ball among the team where multiple players touch the same ball.

A football player should not participate in team drills with a single ball that will be handed off or passed to other teammates. Contact with other players is not allowed, and there should be no sharing of tackling dummies/donuts/sleds.

A volleyball player should not use a single ball that others touch or hit in any manner.

Softball and baseball players should not share gloves, bats, or throw a single ball that will be tossed among the team. A single player may hit in cages, throw batting practice (with netting as backstop, no catcher). Prior to another athlete using the same balls, they should be collected and cleaned individually.

These mean no basketball drills that require passing or rebounding. No hand offs, direct snaps, or passing drills in football. No volleys or bumps in volleyball, where players are encouraged to work on serving drills or use a net or wall for individual drills, as long as the ball is sanitized after each player uses it. And so on.

The NFHS also classified sports based on their risk of exposure. High-risk sports include wrestling, football, boys lacrosse, competitive cheer, and dance. Moderate risk sports include basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, ice hockey, and field events in track. Many of the moderate sports can be reclassified as low risk if they follow certain cleaning and equipment use guidelines. Low risk sports include individual running events, golf, weightlifting, sideline cheer. Cross Country meets with staggered starts would also qualify for low risk status.

For the longer term, the NFHS Guidelines include two more phases addressing pregame and in season practice requirements, and rules for actual games. While there are additional requirements for each phase, some phase one guidelines are lessened as a school advances through the process. Rules addressed include requirements for players on the bench, attendance for fans and media, and travel (limiting the amount of players on busses and school vans). The entire document is available at NFHS.org/media.

The future of high school sports is at a crossroads. Although it may not be perfect, and will greatly change the way games look and possibly are played, it means the conversation has shifted from cancelling games and seasons to discussions about how and when we CAN play. That’s a good sign for sports fans.