High school football is in its final furlong. The finish line is Friday.
At the same time, winter sports hope they can leave the paddock, get to the gate and break from the starting line on time on Dec. 3.
This juncture was not unexpected. After initial trepidation, football and all fall sports had minimal disruptions in the state even as COVID-19 cases were increasing.
We’re back to the trepidation stage, concurrent with the approaching holiday season that stretches from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. It’s been predicted since the early days of the pandemic that more people would get sick the deeper we got into autumn. It’s why colleges set their semesters so students would be done with the first semester before Thanksgiving and not start the spring semester until later in January than usual.
The NSAA is taking the same approach with winter sports as it did with those in the fall: Those teams able to play can. And if the season makes it to the postseason, then adjustments to competition can be made. Such as what’s happened with the state football finals this week.
More than 90% of all high school fall sports contests were held in Nebraska and Iowa. In football, there has been only one game forfeited in the Nebraska playoffs — almost four weeks ago — for a COVID-19 issue.
Whether to proceed with winter sports becomes a local decision. The schools in Lancaster County had it made for them Friday when the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department shut down all youth sports for the three weeks ending Dec. 6. That went beyond Gov. Pete Ricketts’ allowance for high school sports to continue after hospital bed usage from COVID-19 patients topped 25% over a 14-day rolling average, and 25% is where the county said it was on Friday.
Now the Nebraska State Education Association wants Ricketts to go further — shutting down high school sports through the holidays. Maddie Fennell, the NSEA’s executive director, told me that the group’s rationale for suspending sports is “to focus on academics.”
“We know it’s a hard message, but at this time with the surge in cases, we just don’t feel it’s safe to have really close contact,’’ Fennell said. “We said that it was for things that were in person. So that those things that can still be done virtually, whether it be debate or other things, would be fine. But it’s just not safe right now for kids to cluster in groups.
“We know that kids can be asymptomatic carriers, and we really are trying to focus to do all we can to keep our schools open for learning. And that means we have to do everything we can to reduce transmission.”
But are high school sports events spreaders? Have there been outbreaks from transmission between opposing teams? Asked that, Fennell could provide anecdotal evidence only.
“Much of this information is contained by public health departments, and they don’t share that information with us,’’ she said. “However, we have heard from our members as well as some administrators that they have been struggling with a number of students who have become positive or who have had to quarantine because of contact sports.”
How about those in the stands?
“We know that we have parents who want to show up and watch their kids play,’’ Fennell said. “And we know that they’re all not showing up with masks, and that’s problematic in schools. How do we enforce it upon adults to show up with masks, or then they become spreader events?”
Who can quibble that academics come first? But on the scale of spreader events, where do high school sports really fall? As Fennell suggests, if local health departments know they’re not sharing. The City of Lincoln’s official Twitter account Monday replied to a University of Nebraska law professor that Lincoln-Lancaster County Health doesn’t have data available on contact tracing findings to show where outbreaks are occurring.
That void concerns another advocate for silent nights in December. Bob Rauner, a member of the Lincoln school board and president of Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln, said in an email that contact tracing “is showing that extracurricular activities are one of our largest sources of spread for students (in addition to acquiring it from family members or the other social gatherings — sleepovers, parties, videogame-athons in the basement, etc.).
“There is no way to prevent spread with indoor contact sports like basketball, wrestling and hockey. With the degree of out of control community spread happening right now and our hospitals being pushed to the limits, I don’t see how any rational public health expert would say those kinds of activities are OK right now.”
But he, too, can provide no specific data.
“I know the data exists, but they don’t like to share with me, either,’’ Rauner said. “I’m not sure why they aren’t publicizing these numbers. More specifics on spread (e.g., percentage from different activities) would be very helpful in guiding and educating the public. The Japanese were doing things like that six months ago.”
Yes, sports are going indoors. But Ricketts’ guidelines in the newest statewide directed health measure, based on hospital bed usage from COVID-19, seem reasonable for all youth sports. At 20%, limited attendance. At 25%, no sports outside of high schools.
Let’s try that first.
At the very least, start the winter season with varsity competition only. Give seniors their year. Clear out and sanitize the gym between the girls and boys basketball games or split the games between the competing schools. If there is a two-spectator limit per player, a basketball game is going to have fewer than 100 people in a gym that’s a minimum of 5,000 square feet with at least a 20-foot ceiling. Isn’t that sufficient for social distancing?
What may have to give are wrestling and swimming meets because of the number of competitors. Those sports in the regular season could have to shift to duals only or go to no fans in small gyms or pool areas. We already know the state wrestling meet, adding a fourth day in February, will look different.
Some last thoughts on the football finals. Here’s an endorsement for the NSAA’s shift from Memorial Stadium to home sites and playing the games earlier than scheduled. The NSAA staff had little choice, and it was the best option. Stop grousing about site selection. Awarding the games to the higher seed is an idea that should finally spread from Class A to all classes throughout the playoffs. And thank NET for its flexibility to get two games on live TV (Class C-2 and A) and live streaming/future replay of the other games.
Winter sports athletes hope their journey makes it around the track, too.