2020 Fall Season In Jeopardy

Amid a global pandemic, school districts across the U.S. face the difficult decision of whether or not to go ahead with fall sports seasons, should schools reopen. In just this past week, a Pennsylvania school district suspended all sports workouts after a football player and a cross country runner tested positive, while a Michigan high school had several players and coaches self-quarantine after finding a positive coronavirus case on the football team. This year, in particular, schools must act cautiously to protect the health of students, staff, and families; postponing select—if not all—fall sports would be a way to do that. Teenagers tend to spread the virus more than younger children do, and perhaps just as effectively as adults. Without widespread mandatory testing, a single case could potentially cause an outbreak, putting communities at risk. While seniors certainly deserve their final season of high school sports, the health and safety of entire communities must be prioritized in schools’ decision-making process.


Recent Updates From College Athletic Conferences

Major college athletic conferences—including the Big Ten, Pac-12, and Ivy League—have announced postponements, cancellations, and suspensions of competitive seasons through the end of 2020, citing coronavirus risks. As for fall championships, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has cancelled them for Division II and Division III, while postponing them for Division I. In an August 13th video conference, NCAA’s medical advisors stated that the “No. 1 priority” this year should be “controlling this [corona]virus,” urging college and university representatives to prioritize safety over fall sports. High schools should take the decisions made by these major organizations into consideration when deliberating the fate of the fall season. The safety standards set by higher education institutions can give secondary schools an example to follow.


Not All Sports Pose Equal Risk

Several factors complicate the decision on fall sports. While practices can be done individually or in a socially- distanced manner, scrimmages and games are higher-risk activities. Indoor sports and outdoor sports do not share the same conditions, and thus cannot be subjected to the same set of guidelines. Depending on the intensity and nature of the sport, it is easier for some athletes to wear face coverings than others. For instance, according to the recently-updated Massachusetts EEA guidance, sports like cross country and golf are considered “Lower Risk,” while football and cheer are labeled “Higher Risk” due to increased levels of “sustained proximity or deliberate physical contact.” Therefore, schools can choose to limit competitive games and allow practices for lower-risk sports, if those involved follow proper guidance, and if it is safe to do so in their area. 

Not all athletic activities should be treated with the same leniency when it comes to safety measures. Determining which types of activities can be allowed under which circumstances is a tedious, but necessary, process. Unless schools devise detailed plans for fall sports, it would be wiser for them to play it safe and postpone athletic activities through the end of the year.


Seniors Want To Play Their Final Season

For the 8 million high school student athletes across the country, senior year is typically the last season they get to play sports before college. Thus, groups of hopeful players and families have tried making hashtags—such as #WeWantToPlay and #LetEmPlay—go viral in attempts to protect their fall season. Their concerns are valid. The loss of the upcoming season could jeopardize the college recruiting process, scholarship opportunities, and chances to make lasting memories with teammates and coaches. However, as painful as that prospect may feel, the health and safety of the coaches, families, communities, and athletes themselves should be prioritized. The short-term gains of playing another season are not worth the long-term health risks associated with contracting COVID-19. This applies to everyone, but long-term coronavirus-related complications—from prolonged fatigue and shortness of breath to heart and lung conditions—can be especially damaging to athletes. There is no point in having a fall sports season if athletes are going to get sick and suffer from related health issues.

Every state—or even county—has different positivity rates, testing capacities, numbers of available hospital beds, etc. In one county, hypothetically, health officials may find that positivity rates for the virus are dangerously high and advise against all athletic activities. In a different county, health officials may, in fact, find low positivity rates and allow schools to choose whether or not to keep the fall sports season. The bottom line is that schools assess coronavirus risks in a transparent and responsible manner to prioritize the safety of athletes, coaches, and families.


Ultimately, Safety Comes First

According to data from the Harvard Global Health Institute, the vast majority of counties across the U.S. so far have positive test rates of well over 5 percent, the WHO’s suggested maximum positivity rate for an area to reopen. This means that much of the country is not yet ready to fully reopen schools, much less bring athletes into close contact with one another. However, this does not mean sports teams cannot remain active in creative ways. Football, soccer, and other major contact sports can conduct virtual workouts to help players stay in shape. Small groups of cross country runners can train together in a socially distanced manner. Additionally, teams can fundraise in the fall so that they can come back stronger in the spring, or whenever they can play again. Ultimately, the final decision that high schools make on fall sports must be informed by up-to-date data and science, comply with state reopening guidelines, and clearly reflect that the lives of athletes, coaches, and families are valued.