Geoff Smith | From the Baseline: What are we willing to pay to see high school sports this fall?

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If it don't make dollars, it don't make sense.

A wise bit of knowledge that Google attributes to the legendary DJ Quik. But in the COVID-19 world we live in, Quik's quip is the lens a lot of things are being viewed through.

And as much as it's painful to write, does it make sense to have high school sports this fall?

It's a question everyone involved in athletics is dealing with. We know that athletics — or more basically, physical movement — is key for childhood development, and the bonds formed and lessons learned on a sports field can play a major impact on an athlete's life. But what's the cost we, as a society, are willing to pay to make that happen?

One scenario that every administrator is playing out in their head, is how their district would deal with an outbreak like what we've seen in Major League Baseball last week. Leave your politics out of this — any infectious disease needs just one carrier to find new hosts. On a Monday, Team A plays Team B, and on Team A there is at least one athlete unknowingly infected with COVID-19. On Wednesday, Team A is now playing Team X, while Team B is playing Team Z. On Friday, Team A plays Team M, Team B plays Team P, Team X plays Team F, Team Z plays Team R. See how quickly this goes? By the time the following week hits, the virus could have spread from one player on one team, to at least eight teams.

Who's culpable? Can a school be sued over this? The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association? A coach? A trainer? The player? Heck, are referees going to be asked to not only enforce rules, but make sure that someone isn't secretly sick while playing? When, yes when, an athlete gets sick, is their whole team suspended from play for 14 days? What is that going to do to everyone else who plays? And what if the ultimate nightmare scenario plays out, and someone actually dies after getting infected at a sporting event?

Speaking of referees: Is it worth the $40ish dollars per assignment to get sick? It's no secret that, at least in Berkshire County, referees skew toward the older side of the spectrum. If veteran refs back out, are unseasoned refs going to be asked to officiate varsity contests? Now we're not talking virus-born safety, but actual physical safety at stake.

Continuing on the dollar train: How much more is it going to cost to host athletic events? Equipment isn't always easy to come by, but in the hyper-clean world we're being asked to live in, everyone has to have their own stuff, right? At a football game, how many balls are you going to need now? Same with soccer. Forget sharing bibs in cross-country meets. And for all everyone talks about outdoor sports, I'm sure there are many volleyball players asking an even bigger question: How safe is it to be indoors playing sports?

There has been plenty of reporting in the news section about busing issues with bringing kids to school. How is that going to work for sports? Can school districts — already having their budgets trimmed to the bone — afford to get more transportation to places?

On top of all this, there are also questions about how, exactly, athletics can work in a hybrid system — let alone if kids are learning remotely full-time.

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If a kid is in school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, what happens to them the other three days of the week? If kids go week in, week out, what do they do on the off weeks? Sure, maybe some varsity-level athletes have access to cars during the day; but what about those who don't? What about middle schoolers? First-years? What's worse for an athlete; being told their season is delayed indefinitely, or not being able to participate because they can't get a ride?

That last issue seems to be a big one in terms of moving sports forward in the commonwealth. In a survey that the MIAA put out to school administrators, athletic directors and trainers, respondents were asked to strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with some questions. One question was if "interscholastic athletics should be held even if schools are closed to in-person learning."

In the superintendent responses, 86 of 116 answers were either "disagree" (40) or "strongly disagree" (46). That's roughly 75 percent of the superintendents asked. In the principals/athletic directors poll, just over 50 percent (144 of 277) answers were either "disagree" (87) or "strongly disagree" (57).

In that survey, respondents were also asked to list their greatest concerns for the year. The answers are anonymous, but can be viewed online.

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Here's a smattering:

"If we only open on different days for different grade levels we will not be able to have sports this fall."

"Staff and students getting sick; possibility of deaths; inability to get subs for teachers out 2 weeks."

"Safety for players. I want them to play but not risk outbreak."

"Developing plans and having coaches follow them without push back. Football coaches in particular are very resistant to changes and I'm not looking forward to dealing with their grief." (I'd challenge this person that football coaches are actually very receptive to change, they just give off the appearance of not being that way. If you tell them they have to jump to play this fall, the only question would be "how high?").

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"There is no way of knowing what will be required and there will be a tight window of time to get everything up and running for the fall season."

"We will not be operating on a full schedule and then mixing students in for athletics defeats the hybrid model approach."

"Traveling to games by bus. Concerned that the school doesn't have the budget or personnel to send 2-3 buses per team to away games."

"That athletics will try to be forced to happen leaving schools to try and secure enough resources and then try and implement a plan with very limited staffing."

"The ability to run sports with only the personnel we have. Also the lack of equipment. Lack of funds. I don't believe football will be able to play in the fall."

You get the point.

So, what's the answer? Good question! A lot is going to depend on when, how and if kids can safely get back into the classroom. Once education has returned full-time to school buildings, the athletics conversation becomes more simplified. Kids are there, let them play. But until that's the case? Put competitive athletics on the backburner. The world is currently asking teachers and administrators to sort out problems that have never been asked of them before. And even in our own state, COVID-19 infections are being linked to, among other things, an unauthorized football camp, a graduation party, and a prom party.

There is no accountant in the sports department here at the Eagle, but it's pretty apparent that the numbers just don't add up here. And in a world where every cent is going to matter, there's no sense in rushing people into unsafe situations.

Geoff Smith can be reached at gsmith@berkshrieeagle.com, @GSmith_Eagle on Twitter and 413-496-6254.


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