Last Wednesday, the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s (AHSAA) Central Board voted to proceed with its fall sports – football, volleyball, cross country and swimming – on a normal schedule while recognizing the 2020 season will be anything but normal.
Last Thursday, AHSAA executive director Steve Savarese addressed the concerns of those who oppose any attempt to conduct a fall sports season, particularly football, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“No one is wrong regarding their opinion with COVID-19,” Savarese said. “I want to assure you this association respects each and every one of your opinions. I want you also to respect ours and our Central Board of Control in providing an opportunity for our students. Our students will not come through here again. If a parent is not sure whether they want their students to participate in sports, we truly understand.
“Please, please, all of you, practice the guidelines put forth by our medical advisors. Practice the guidelines put forth by our governor so our kids can have a future. If we’ll all do what is asked of us, then we will have an opportunity to return to a sense of normalcy.”
Savarese addressed the state via a televised press conference that included texted-in questions regarding the upcoming season. His message seemed to resonate with area high school coaches who have been assembled in a sanitized and masked practice setting since June 1, hoping the 2020 season would not be canceled.
“I’m real excited for our kids,” Catholic coach Aubrey Blackwell said, “because so many of our kids have been working their tails off since January, trying to prepare for this moment. We have a few kids who are really fighting for a college opportunity and they want to continue their playing career and they need football to give them that.
“I’m really glad we’re at the forefront of saying we want to give these kids a chance at a normal life. I did enjoy what he said about that today. I think the safety guidelines that are in place are going to be difficult because of the organization but once you have the organization, it should be a fairly easy process to keep our kids safe and keep the people safe that want to come watch us play football.”
The Alabama Independent School Association’s (AISA) athletic committee held a similar meeting on Thursday and elected to proceed with a normal fall sports schedule.
“Over the last several weeks and months, we have considered numerous options and developed numerous contingency plans for a return to AISA athletics,” AISA executive director Michael McLendon said in a statement to member schools. “I want to thank AISA athletic director Roddie Beck and the members of the AISA Athletic Committee for their hard work and devotion to serve our member schools and student-athletes. Their work is not easy and I appreciate their willingness to serve.
“After considering options for resuming athletics in the fall, the AISA Athletic Committee has decided that fall sports (cross country, volleyball and football) will proceed as originally scheduled with plans for full and complete seasons. However, until further notice, volleyball and football teams will be restricted to competition against only one other team and multiple team events (i.e. tournaments, jamborees) will be prohibited. Practice for volleyball and football may begin on July 27 and cross country is scheduled to begin on Aug. 3.”
The AISA coaches, like their AHSAA counterparts, are eager for the official start of practice on Monday.
“I knew all along Roddie and Michael were going to do everything they could for us to play,” Autauga Academy coach Bobby Carr said. “I just think it’s important for all of us – my opinion, folks may disagree – I just think life’s got to go on. It’s like my pastor said one day, we’ve got to be safe and take proper precautions but we can’t let this define us. And it’s something we’re going to all have to get through together. I’m glad we’re going to get to play. Our kids have been working hard, just like I’m sure every other high school player has, so it would have been tough for them to come out and say we’re not going to play.”
While some teams have had to halt practice for a positive COVID-19 test, others have continued with workouts without interruption, warning their players to maintain a low profile and surround themselves with immediate family members only. Everyone is aware, however, that the risk of infection will rise with the introduction of students when school resumes.
“It could snowball and shut everybody down,” St. James coach Jimmy Perry noted, “but if we all start on time we’ll have some semblance of a season. I’m glad we’re starting. Let’s get started and see where it takes us.”
AHSAA officials unveiled a 12-page “Best Practices” document on their Web site (www.ahsaa.com) with various COVID-related questions regarding forfeited contests, facilities, attendance and officials, all the while focusing on the wearing of masks and attempts to maintain social distancing.
“If a school cannot play, they will notify us in writing,” Savarese said. “They will forfeit the game but there will no penalty (fine). If they can find a way to play at a later date, we will work with them. As I explained to the (Central) Board, this is unprecedented health times. We have to be more understanding, more flexible and look for ways to work with our schools to allow our students to participate.
“If we can get in five games, eight games, nobody knows what tomorrow holds. That’s why we’re beginning when we’re beginning because we don’t know what October holds, what November holds. Hopefully, we can get our games in, allowing our students to have if not an entire season, a portion of their season.”
Coaches in volleyball, cross country and swimming are urged to schedule and complete area games and qualifying times and meets as soon as possible to allow for the maximum amount of time to complete requirements for playoff consideration.
Savarese said he fully understands any teams or even entire school systems that do not want to participate in sports, adding that any player below the varsity level could transfer from a non-playing school to a playing school but that varsity players have to make bona-fide moves established in the AHSAA bylaws.
“We allow schools (the option to play or not to play) on a week-by-week, semester-by-semester, nine-week-by-nine-week (basis), whatever they feel is safe based on the latest health information within their school district, their county, whatever,” Savarese said. “They will be allowed to make that decision with no penalty (fine).”
Both AHSAA officials and AISA officials considered moving football to the spring in their various contingency plans, but the recovery time for high school students participating in football would make it difficult for players to play in the spring of 2021 and then resume another season that fall with no real break in between.
“Our medical advisory board has advised us not to have back-to-back football seasons, (where we) play in the spring, work out in the summer and play again in the fall,” Savarese said. “They highly advise against that for health and safety reasons.”
Both organizations realize contingency plans likely will be implemented during the 2020 season.
“In the coming days, the AISA will release safety protocols for fall sports and be available to answer any questions,” McLendon said. “Of course, as time progresses, safety protocols will likely need to change or be adjusted and we will need to be flexible as we proceed.”
Savarese addressed additional rules and regulations regarding attendance, concessions and facilities, noting that the AHSAA only governs the football teams and that the remainder of the event will be governed at the local level.
“We do not govern cheerleading and band but we encourage all school systems to provide an opportunity for the band to participate and for cheerleaders to be a part of the contest if in accordance with local school policy,” Savarese said. “We encourage administrators to find a place for them and work with your football teams to find a safe environment, not only for the band but for cheerleaders.
“Fan restrictions will be a local school issue,” he added. “Local schools will determine how many fans will be allowed to attend the game. We are looking forward to, in the next few weeks, the Alabama Department of Public Health providing documents toward attendance at athletic events. We would suggest parents and everyone check with their local school because we definitely think there will be fan restrictions.”
Football teams will begin fall workouts on Monday with the first week dedicated to acclimation in helmets and shorts. The other fall sports – volleyball, cross country and swimming and diving – can use the first week for acclimation and tryouts or skip that step and begin practice on Aug. 3. Savarese pointed out that “fall sports will end if the Department of Public Health or our governor shuts down our schools as happened in March,” but until that happens, high school football will try to defy the odds and return the state to a sense of normalcy that includes high school football on Friday nights.
“That’s all we can do,” Blackwell said. “It’s better than not trying. My whole deal with this thing, if anybody asks me my opinion, is my opinion really doesn’t matter because I’m not the one that has been spending hours and hours with doctors and medical boards and the Central Board. All of those people are decision makers in their communities, a lot of them are superintendents or principals. They’ve got more say-so in this than I ever would. If they’re telling us we want to try this, we think it’s safe to play if you do it this way, I’m willing to step out and say let’s go.”