It started with a Tweet by a prominent college football player and spread all over the United States, even catching the attention of the president.
Donald Trump said he supported the message put out Monday by Clemson University quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who started a sports-wide movement by posting #WeWantToPlay on his social media account. The sentiment resonated with high school and college athletes all over America, who are itching to return to competition while the country – and the world – continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the question about whether it’s safe to resume sports as the numbers of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to mount.
Local high school teams, who are tentatively planning for fall sports as the start of a new academic year approaches, do not have all the answers. But there’s no question about what they want.
“I’ve been seeing this deal out there, ‘hashtag we want to play.’ Man, I’m in total agreement with that,” Heights High School football coach Stephen Dixon said. “I’d have to say, ‘hashtag we want to coach.’ We want to be back there and see these kids. We miss them.”
Everybody who supports the development of youngsters and the communal value of sports wants them to play, and sports fans like myself have missed the games for most of the last several months. It’s been equal parts exciting and therapeutic to watch televised Astros and Rockets games as of late, with MLB, the NBA and the NHL recently ending months-long hiatuses forced by the pandemic. I enjoyed the chance to take in last week’s PGA Championship, the first major golf tournament of the year, just as much.
But it’s one thing for professional athletes who are in peak physical condition and paid millions of dollars to take on the risk of up-close competition, and with no fans in attendance. And we’ve already seen that the coronavirus can spread among with them, with mini-outbreaks forcing a few MLB teams to postpone multiple games while they quarantine.
Is it a good idea for high school and college athletes, many of whom compete for publicly funded educational institutions, to put themselves and their families in the same precarious position while the pandemic rages on? What if they become infected and pass the disease to a relative who is at risk for serious complications? What if a young player becomes ill, has lingering medical problems or, even worse, dies from COVID-19?
It looks like too great of a risk to take, especially considering the ongoing debate about whether it’s safe for kids to return to classrooms. Should these kids be participating in extracurricular activities if they’re not even being educated on campuses?
That’s the plan right now within Houston ISD, which includes area high schools Heights, Scarborough, Booker T. Washington and Waltrip. The district will start school Sept. 8 with remote, online learning for at least six weeks, with Oct. 19 being the target date for the start of in-person instruction.
But according to the schedule outlined by the University Interscholastic League (UIL), which governs extracurricular competition among Texas public schools, the state’s largest schools are allowed to start football and volleyball practices Sept. 7, with games permitted to start within a week or two afterward.
Smaller schools such as Scarborough were allowed to start practices Aug. 3, with Monday having been the first date for volleyball games and football games allowed to start taking place Aug. 27. But HISD athletics director Andre’ Walker said all HISD schools will operate under the same large-school timeframe.
Walker said the district realizes the risk associated with playing, with COVID-19 having impacted members of the district’s athletic department or their loved ones. He also acknowledged there were some infections when HISD athletic programs held voluntary outdoor workouts in June.
At the same time, Walker said it’s important for many HISD student-athletes to be reunited with their coaches, who in some cases are significant role models in their lives. Athletics also gives some youngsters a sense of direction, helping them stay focused on their schoolwork while encouraging them to stay out of trouble.
“Our coaches are our front line for a lot of our kids,” Walker said. “Our kids need to be with our coaches. But if it’s not safe, then we can’t do that now.”
The fate of the 2020 high school sports season is in many ways out of the hands of local players, families, coaches and school administrators. Public schools are bound by the decisions of the UIL, while most private schools are bound by the guidelines of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS), which historically follows the lead of the UIL. The directives of local and state officials also are factors in whether or not they can compete.
The plans for TAPPS schools, which includes local institutions Lutheran High North, St. Pius X and St. Thomas, is to start practices Sept. 7 and games on Sept. 24.
St. Thomas football coach Rich McGuire said it’s wise to take a slow, measured approach, mostly to help allay the fears of families and the community in general. But he said he ultimately wants to see a season take place, partly so his seniors have the opportunity to earn college scholarships that could be worth several thousand dollars, and he said his school is taking precautions and putting procedures in place to help ensure that will happen.
McGuire said there have been no COVID-19 cases among athletes at St. Thomas, which has provided face coverings to them all while employing social distancing practices during workouts. He said the plan for games is to have players spread out along the sideline, wear masks when they are not actively involved in a play and have their own water bottles to minimize contact with others.
Football coach Shaun Stephens of Lutheran High North said the team is considering having some players stay with other families during football season if their own relatives have underlying health conditions that could put them at risk.
“As football coaches, we mitigate risk all day every day. That is what we do,” McGuire said. “That is why we buy the new equipment, why we teach the proper way to tackle.
“I think it’s really important that these kids get back to some sort of normalcy,” he added. “They’re a group that is relatively safe.”
Youth sports, which for the most part are private and not bound by statewide organizations, have been held across the country in recent months. That could be a sign that high school sports is doable.
But if high schools take cues from colleges, their season could be in jeopardy. Two major athletic conferences, the Big Ten and Pac-12, announced earlier this week that they won’t hold sports in the fall.
St. Pius X athletics director Jeff Feller, who said the school has not had any coronavirus cases during its summer workouts, remains hopeful that sports will take place but also said the students’ health is the primary concern. If interscholastic sports don’t happen this fall, he said St. Pius X wants to offer some sort of internal athletic programming to its students.
Dixon, the Heights coach, said he would be open to the idea of switching football season to the spring if it’s safer and more feasible. But he’d rather return to the sidelines sooner than later.
“I’m fine with playing now or playing in the spring,” he said. “But I’m not fine with the season being cancelled entirely.”
Ultimately, Dixon and others in the area may not have a choice. All they can do is remain optimistic and prepare as best they can.