Examining tough questions facing PIAA

The high school sports governing body approved return-to-competition guidelines. Among many measures outlined by the guidelines are that no fans will be allowed to attend games unless Covid-19 restrictions are eased by the state.

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Photo courtesy of lifetouch

Spring-Ford football coach Chad Brubaker speaks with his team during a game last fall. The PIAA approved return-to-play guidelines for this fall on July 27.

Matt Dunne, Sports Editor

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association made what was possibly the hardest-but-easiest decision in the organization’s history a few months ago — cancelling spring sports. 

Deciding to cancel the spring sports season seemed inevitable as Covid-19 cases spiked. However, extreme disappointment and outrage nonetheless followed that announcement April 9 as it effectively ended any hope of a return to play for baseball, softball, lacrosse, or track. 

After that difficult decision, attention predictably turned to the fall. 

The PIAA approved return-to-competition guidelines Wednesday, July 29. Among many measures outlined by the guidelines are that no fans will be allowed to attend games unless restrictions are eased by the state. Additionally, athletes must wear face coverings at all times when not in the field of play. Most importantly, teams must shut down for 14 days if a player or coach tests positive for Covid-19. 

“PIAA is committed to maximizing the athletic opportunities for student-athletes across the entire Commonwealth and will remain flexible in considering that certain sports may be impacted differently and post-season play may need to be modified,” The PIAA Return to Competition guidelines report stated. “Based on currently known information, the PIAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee believes that STRICT ADHERENCE by schools and teams to their school-adopted plans and the Governor’s School Sports Guidance should provide a reasonably safe environment for student-athletes to participate in interscholastic athletics as currently scheduled.”

The PIAA guidelines, for starters, provided flexibility for return-to-play dates. The organization provided schools with three game return recommendations called “regular,” “alternate,” and “hybrid” starts: 

  • The “regular” start would have heat acclimation activities commence Aug. 10, practices Aug. 17, the first golf match Aug. 20, the first football game Aug. 28, and the remaining sports starting Sept. 4. 
  • The “alternate” start would have heat acclimation activities commence Aug. 10, practices Aug. 17, regular schedules of all sports but football start Sept. 14, and football start Sept. 18. 
  • The “hybrid” start would have fall sports starting no later than Oct. 5, but it could be later with a school’s district committee’s approval. 

It is unclear at this point which return would apply to Spring-Ford. 

Some Spring-Ford athletes returned to voluntary workouts recently after the school’s return-to-play plan — aligned with the PDE’s Preliminary Guidance for Phased Reopening of Schools — was approved by the school board and posted on the school’s website. 

Individual sports coaches also submitted additional safety plans to the administration. 

“Spring-Ford is doing everything in their power for the health and safety of all participants,” Assistant Athletic Director Dan Miscavage said.  

As we find ourselves two weeks away from “heat acclimation” activities mentioned in the guidelines, some questions still persist despite the many answers given by the PIAA.  

The most obvious and important question is in what capacity students are permitted to return to school, and how does that affect play? 

If students are permitted to return to full school with social distancing measures in place, sports teams have a better chance to return. In a hybrid phase, where students are coming in only a few days a week, I still believe that a continued sports season is realistic. In some virtual learning environments this could also be in play. 

A question that arises with a hybrid or voluntary virtual reopening by districts, though, would be the optics. School cannot happen as planned, but the extracurriculars can continue? This is one of the many questions schools around the state will face. 

Safely navigating a return to sports has been a struggle, even among organizations with the most resources. To point: many are questioning Major League Baseball’s decision to resume play this week after several Marlins players tested positive for Covid-19 following their weekend series with the Phillies. 

Many of Pennsylvania’s surrounding states have already postponed or pushed back fall sports dates after seeing the challenges professional, amateur, and collegiate sports leagues have had with much more robust testing available. 

A limited testing capacity potentially could set up for one positive test quarantining a team for fourteen days and adversely affect numerous of their opposing teams. Whether it is scheduling or the fear of one of their athletes contracting the virus, this will certainly be challenging to districts, athletic offices, coaches, and certainly the student athletes. 

An important thing to remember as we move towards this season is that athletics occurring is important. One can make the argument it is not integral, but cancelling the season is going to mark the end for a lot of senior students’ careers. 

Some careers will end because seniors were content with finishing their high school years and moving on. Some will end because athletes will not have the ability to be recruited as they will not have the tape they were relying on from their senior season. Athletes losing that senior season they have worked so hard for will be so crushing.

Is it in the best interest of all to delay fall sports even further than the PIAA recommendations — perhaps to the spring? Many will argue that there are too many multi-sport athletes to make it work. That certainly could be true, but doesn’t it seem to be in the best interest of all students to at least entertain the possibility? 

Could a season of conference-only opponents be possible under the PIAA’s “alternate” or “hybrid” start? It would be better than nothing and would limit travel. However, limiting travel from county to county seems impossible given many conferences’ geographical makeup. These possibilities and more are certain to be explored as the season grows closer. 

Covid-19 has been an ever-changing virus with frequent twists and turns, giving up on a fall sports season now would only seem premature. 

Every single one of these questions — and many more — are going to have to be answered though. It is going to be extremely difficult to satisfy all people involved, and it is going to be controversial whatever route teams, schools, and the PIAA decide. 

The PIAA is lucky to be located in one of the only Northeastern states operating status-quo at the moment. With the right protocols, it may be able to be done. The question will be whether the PIAA pushes the right buttons as the season progresses.

““We feel it is vitally important to give our student athletes every opportunity to be student athletes,” PIAA Executive Director Bob Lombardi told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We’re advocates for them. Educational-based athletics are vital to the growth, health, development and involvement of student athletes and their ultimate success.”