EDITOR’S NOTE: This afternoon, the CIAC football committee voted to push the high school football season out to Spring 2021.
I have taught high school English in Connecticut for 29 years. I have coached high school football for 15 of those years.
I’d like to begin my 16th year of coaching football this school year – but not until the spring of 2021. And only if it’s safe to do so.
I’m not the first to second-guess the CIAC decision to move ahead with football this fall. Hartford Courant columnist Mike Anthony, Hearst Media writer Jeff Jacobs, and The Day of New London’s editorial board already have questioned the pronouncement. It just seems like I’m one of the few coaches to publicly state my opposition.
The CIAC announced its plan for fall sports on July 31, exactly one day after Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, made this statement during Gov. Ned Lamont’s press briefing:
“We recommend, if you look at our risk graphic, that contact sports of any type not be played. I understand … giving up something that is a crucial part of your life. But we do need to be safe and put safety Number 1. And I think contact sports are not a good idea.”
Thanks for your opinion, Doc. Now go take a seat.
As with any complicated undertaking, the devil is in the details. And the details of the CIAC plan include some real head-scratchers.
Initial football practices will be conducted with “cohorts” of 15 players at a time – a key strategy for limiting student-to-student contact inherent in every school’s reopening plan. Full-team practices start on Sept. 11 with sessions that “can involve 30 minutes of contact intended to demonstrate and teach tackling and blocking progressions. The remaining 60 minutes of skill work is non-contact and maintains a social distance of 6 feet for all participants.”
Come again? What’s the point of social distancing after players have already spent 30 minutes engaged in the very antithesis of social distancing?
Moreover, the plan recommends that locker rooms be used “as little as possible.” When locker rooms are used, “consideration of greater social distance (12 feet) should be applied. To minimize exposure, a schedule should be developed when locker rooms are used.”
Thankfully, my high school’s locker room includes a “team room” where varsity football players keep their bulky equipment. It should be no problem to schedule our 30+ players their allotted times to dress for practice in this 20-foot by 15-foot space, right? Members of the JV football, cross country, and soccer teams – upward of 100 boys at our small high school – will no doubt be similarly accommodated in the main locker room.
Then again, all of these student-athletes will not be in attendance every day. Like many districts, mine is employing a “hybrid” schedule at the start of the year to facilitate social-distancing and cohorting. Thus, only 50% of the student body will be present every day. So do student-athletes at home on “remote days” still come to school for practice? If so, why bother with a hybrid schedule at all, only to have cohorts disrupted at football practice – to say nothing of soccer, cross country, field hockey, swimming, and volleyball practices?
What about the teams at Hillhouse and Wilbur Cross high schools in New Haven? That district is going entirely remote for the first 10 weeks. Do athletes receive an exemption, allowing them to come to school for practice? Or do all kids in New Haven simply lose out on fall sports?
My point is not to criticize the CIAC plan as much as it is to emphasize the impossibility of creating an athletic plan that successfully follows the very same CDC and public-health guidelines that schools themselves must follow.
To its credit, the CIAC emphasizes this plan is “fluid and in a perpetual state of evaluation. COVID health metrics and data in Connecticut will continue to be closely monitored and the appropriateness of holding youth sports and/or interscholastic athletic contests can change at any time.”
But is that a caveat or an escape clause? Is the CIAC putting its best face on a precarious decision, especially in light of the controversy created when it decided, correctly, to suspend winter sports tournaments in March?
It feels like we’re all waiting for someone in charge to stand up and say, “Stop already!” Or worse, we’re anticipating the first outbreak so officials can vindicate the suspension of fall sports.
My gut tells me that football, at least – already designated by the National Federation of State High School Associations as a “higher risk” sport – ultimately will be suspended. Twelve states have already moved football to the spring of 2021, an idea I endorse. The University of Connecticut just cancelled its 2020 football season. The New England Small College Athletic Conference has pulled the plug on all fall sports. And the Ivy League has scrapped all sports through the calendar year.
As I enter my 30th year of teaching, I foresee my biggest challenge yet. As I enter my 16th year of coaching, I dread negotiating the convoluted logistics of a patchwork football season on top of an unprecedented teaching challenge. It just doesn’t make sense. What’s more, it just isn’t safe.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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