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Mills administration appears destined to halt high school sports this fall

The Maine Principals’ Association’s (MPA) Interscholastic Management Committee voted unanimously on Thursday to accept the recommendation of the association’s Sports Medicine Committee to allow all high school sports to be played this fall.

The Sports Medicine Committee unanimously voted on Wednesday to recommend all fall high school sports be played this year, including football and soccer, two sports which many expected would be cancelled by the MPA. In recommending all sports move forward, the committee established safety guidelines for each sport which participating schools would be required to follow in order to play.

Many expected the Interscholastic Management Committee’s vote to be the final step in the process to revive high school sports and return to some sort of normalcy in the upcoming school year. Despite public statements by a representative of the Department of Education (DOE) that the MPA would hold the deciding vote in this matter, a new wrinkle was recently announced: the Mills administration is now reviewing the association’s recommendations and plans to have the final say.

According to the Press Herald, a spokesperson for the DOE said earlier this month, “any decision about interscholastic sports will be made by the MPA.” But now the state will review the association’s decision and says it needs time to go over all of its recommendations for each sport.

The entities conducting the review include the DOE, Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Department of Economic and Community Development, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Office of Gov. Janet Mills. Little time was baked into the MPA’s timetable to resume sports for the state to perform this review.

During Thursday’s Maine CDC press briefing, DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said, “School athletics are not exempt from the governor’s underlying requirements during the pandemic.”

This means some sports like football – where combined team rosters, staff and game officials may potentially exceed the 100-person limit on outdoor gatherings (or violate other executive orders) – could be nixed by the Mills administration.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. With the governor’s orders top of mind, the MPA has taken the time to review all of the best data available on reopening schools and playing sports amid the pandemic, and their recommendation is to “let them play.” The Mills administration should review the association’s recommendations and find a way to say yes instead of cancelling fall sports.

“It feels like they flipped the script on us,” said Mike Hathaway, head coach of the defending Class C state championship Leavitt Hornets football team. “Yesterday was a change in tone from state government agencies in terms of how involved they were going to be in this process.”

This summer the Hornets have been conducting workouts that follow the community sports guidelines issued by the state, and the school even added additional layers of rules to protect students’ safety during these activities beyond the guidance they were initially given.

Hathaway says the safety guidelines established by the MPA to play football this fall are reasonable, and his staff and players will follow them if it means they can play. He said coaches acknowledged earlier this summer that game and practice environments would be different under the new rules, but they are prepared to adjust to the changes and respond accordingly to protect their communities.

Some of these changes are specific to each sport or mirror new school safety rules. For example, in football the sidelines will be expanded to allow students to spread out more when they are not in the game. Capacity limits on busses have also been reduced, a rule that applies to every school as part of the DOE’s school safety guidelines, meaning coaches will have to limit the number of players they travel with to and from away games, among other changes.

“I’m a math guy,” Hathaway said. “If you can mathematically reduce the risk, you should. With the modifications they’ve looked at, they’re trying to reduce the risk and make it as safe as they possibly can. But we also need to realize that we can’t make it 100 percent safe, just like we can’t guarantee that a player won’t sustain a torn ACL, or anything like that. We just want to play and reduce risk as much as we can.”

Perhaps the biggest change this fall, if games are allowed to be played, would be the lack of spectators at every sporting event.

“It would be a different feel playing without [spectators], but it’s certainly something we’re willing to sacrifice if it’s the difference between playing and not playing,” Hathaway said. “The kids want to play even if it means no spectators.”

Of particular concern to Hathaway, if all or some fall sports cannot proceed this year, is what students will be doing in their free time off the field and away from school. For students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds or have troubles at home, being at school and participating in extracurricular activities is often the best place for them to be.

“If you talked to other coaches, the impact of not having our kids for the season is something they’re worried about. It’s my biggest concern” Hathaway said. “We can’t control what students are doing when they’re not at school. If they don’t play sports or participate in extracurricular activities at school this fall, what are they doing? Some kids will find jobs or play AAU sports, but others will find unhealthy things to do and make unhealthy choices. If they’re going to do something, let us control it so we can take the necessary steps to protect them.”

Even if the Mills administration takes action to cancel some or all fall sports this year, individual districts will have the final say on whether or not their students participate in the permitted sporting events.

Ultimately, the MPA’s decision puts the Mills administration in a precarious position. The MPA has determined – using science, not fear – that it is safe to return to fall sports under certain safety conditions. However, participation in some of these activities could result in a violation of the governor’s executive orders.

Cancelling any sport this fall would make Gov. Mills the villain of this story. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

Editor’s Note: The author of this piece attended Leavitt Area High School and played football for Mike Hathaway.