Playing the waiting game

Published 11:52 am Thursday, July 9, 2020

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By Andy Rhinehart

There’s only one game going on right now in state high school athletics, and the North Carolina High School Athletic Association and its 421 member schools are stuck playing it.

The Waiting Game.

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Contrary to recent social media speculation, the NCHSAA has made no decisions regarding the 2020-2021 athletic season. There are ample plans and contingencies and what-ifs, but the bottom line is that everything hinges upon the reopening schedule for schools.

That word came Wednesday from NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker, who met with state media members via teleconference. Tucker did not rule out the fall season starting on August 1, as scheduled. She also did not rule out any other start date nor athletics not being played at all.

“We know everyone wants the decision about whether or not fall sports will start on time,” Tucker said. “We know that everyone wants to know, in particular, will the Friday night lights be on for our schools across the state starting in August or would it be in September. But we simply cannot give you that answer at this time.

“We can tell you that we believe that the governor, unless he feels conditions will allow students to return to some form of in-person learning safely, it is difficult to imagine that high school athletics will be able to resume any type of competition at our member schools. If it is unsafe for our students to be in school, then certainly the idea is that it would be unsafe for our students to be playing in those athletic venues.”

State officials have created three plans for how schools might reopen this fall, those roughly including:

  • Plan A: Schools fully reopen
  • Plan B: Schools reopen with a mix of in-person and remote learning
  • Plan C: Schools operate fully with remote learning

The clearest outcome for state athletics right now is Plan A; Tucker said the fall season would start on time “and we will do business as usual.” The possibilities for the other two scenarios are much murkier.

“If it’s Plan B or if it’s Plan C, then obviously what we’ll need to do will be to see what that means as it relates to numbers,” Tucker said. “Does that mean then that we would be able to move into team competition? Are there some sports that, based upon the guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services, that we would need to delay?

“Plan B, obviously, is the one that is perhaps the most concerning, because it would say 50 percent students in school and perhaps it’s on a rotating basis, how would that work as it relates to sports? Plan C is remote learning only. Does that mean that if they’re remote learning, they cannot be on the campus? Does that mean they can’t be on the campus because it’s unsafe? Or is it that they are not on the campus because high school students are learning remotely while the high schools are being used for elementary and middle schools? So, there are a lot of different factors that will play into the decisions that we make and will determine which plan will work best.”

Tucker spent a portion of Wednesday’s call discussing the possibility of flipping the fall and spring sports seasons, moving higher contact sports such as football and soccer to the spring and bringing sports such as baseball and softball to the fall. It’s one of the many ideas on the table and gained some interest Tuesday when a state political figure tweeted that a proposal from Eastern football coaches would be “formally considered” by the NCHSAA.

Tucker squashed that notion and said that any movement of athletic seasons would need the backing of the majority of the Association.

“If we followed that line of reasoning, we have some schools right now that are already working out and conditioning whereby only the fall sports kids are out there working out,” she said. “The spring sport kids are not out there. So that would have to be factored into any decision. Okay, if we’re going to do that, then which sports would we flip-flop?

“I think there are a lot of questions that would have to be answered before we really could come out and say, alright, here’s the drop-dead date (for a decision to move). And I think, again, until we know a little bit more from our doctors and our researchers as to whether or not football can be played at all, because we know that they’re saying there’s going to be another spike. So, what do we do if we go ahead and bring the spring sport athletes on board to try to play in the fall, and then we shut them down again?

“So, we’re thinking about those things as well, but clearly there would have to be enough notice for us to be able to flip-flop sports and then to make that kind of decision in order to flip-flop. And I can honestly tell you that that’s a buy-in that I think our membership would have to want to do. It’s one thing for football coaches to want to do this, but what do our softball coaches say? What do our baseball coaches say? What about those natural spring sports coaches and principals of those member schools? So, I understand football coaches lobbying, but that’s not going to be what tips the scale for me.”

Tucker also touched on what might be the biggest hurdle for the NCHSAA – the possibility that state officials will offer flexible reopening plans for school districts. Thus, Polk County Schools, for example, might meet the criteria for Plan A and can operate in that manner, but Buncombe County might be in Plan B and another county could be in Plan C. That would create some logistical challenges, to say the least.

“I foresee that as being the biggest issue,” Tucker said. “And I also think that it will pose equity issues, and what do I mean by that? We have some students who drive to school every day. We have some students who are dependent on getting on a bus coming every day. And if the bus situation is not such that folk can get to school, or if I happen to be one of those students who has to ride the bus, but this is my day that I’m to be in virtual learning, how do I get to school for practice?

“I think those are the challenges that we’ll have as we work through all of this, and I think you know, again, we will need to know things like, what is the transportation situation going to be like? Everybody just wants to play the game, but people forget, how do we get to the game? Somebody is going to be a visiting team. How do they get there? Do they ride a bus? How many buses is that going to take, and then what about the finances with all of that?

“So, you know, I think there are a lot of issues and there are a lot of concerns and challenges that will have to be overcome.”