No one should be surprised that while the road to fall high school sports is being cleared step by step, additional steps — consider them checks and balances — continue to arise.
This is, after all, uncharted territory being negotiated not only to return student-athletes to competition amid the unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic, but students to their classrooms.
But just as the state continues to have one of the nation’s lowest daily case rates of the coronavirus, an Aug.7 wedding and reception in Millinocket revealed anew just how quickly it can spread, with related outbreaks at the York County Jail and a rehabilitation in Madison.
So as are other walks of life, interscholastic athletics in Maine this fall will face continuing levels of scrutiny as they seek to get started.
Maybe that’s as it should be given the fact that there is no vaccine to curb the pandemic and it’s impossible to predict when and where the next outbreak will arise.
The Maine Principals’ Association has worked steadfastly to develop a plan it believes provides a reasonably safe route for sports-starved teenagers to return to their athletic passions after already sitting out the spring season.
It has followed national trends closely, consulted with various government agencies and capitalized on its own sports medicine committee and its well-regarded doctors and athletic trainers. The MPA’s individual sport committees have shared safety guidelines of common interest and researched and addressed issues unique to their sports.
The MPA also has been transparent in its work, opening virtual meetings to the media and, to some degree, even the general public. That was in evidence Thursday when parents were among the questioners during an Interscholastic Management Committee meeting when the final, unanimous vote was taken this fall to proceed with football, soccer, field hockey, golf, cross country and volleyball.
The MPA now is seeking one final review of its COVID-related policies and guidelines by the likes of the Governor’s Office, Department of Economic and Community Development, Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Will those reviews lead to any changes, or will they influence individual school district superintendents with an even more cautious view of the situation than the MPA in their decisions about whether to return to play?
I admit to some surprise when football — the only Maine fall sport deemed ‘high-risk’ by both the National Foundation of State High School Associations and Maine’s community sports guidelines — advanced through all the MPA panels.
While that endorsement was measured, virtually everything I previously heard about football’s potential fate in Maine this fall leading up to the decision suggested how challenging it would be to field the sport.
“With the other sports I look at it as we’ve given them a green light,” said Dr. William Heinz, chair of the MPA Sports Medicine Committee and a former chair of the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.
“With football, I look at it as we’ve given them a blinking yellow light, and if anything happens throughout the country or within the state of Maine as far as increased transmission, then we’re going to pull that recommendation and have them change to another activity.”
To me, the latter part of Heinz’s statement should be the guiding principle for any fall sport that moves forward.
It’s clear that players want to play, parents want to support them, and coaches want to coach.
National studies point to a negative mental-health impact related to active student-athletes who suddenly find themselves without sports to play.
It’s also clear that there remains little consensus on how the public should proceed in virtually any facet of life during these unique times. Much of what we’re doing is trying things we think are safe but don’t know for sure.
But does that mean we should return to shutdown mode, or use what we’ve learned since March to give ourselves the best chance to live life with some degree of normalcy?
Some supporters of fall sports cite community sports as they were held around the state this summer and the lack of any reported COVID-19 outbreaks.
Heinz also noted that of the seven states where the tackle football season already has started, only one case of community transmission has been found in more than 1,000 contests, that in Alaska.
A handful of outbreaks around the interscholastic sports world would render such anecdotal evidence inert.
But at this point I’m willing to partner all the work that has been done to re-open Maine’s schools this fall with all that the MPA has put forward to re-open interscholastic sports and activities and give kids — who would be highly motivated to abide by the new guidelines that include face coverings and physical distancing in most instances — a chance to play ball.
Until the light blinks yellow.