“Let them play,” one email petition began, and they will.
The Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association unanimously today voted to allow fall high school sports to start. No dates were specified in the association’s first vote, which occurred after almost three hours of discussion, and lots of rules were established, including behavior common to all coronavirus guidelines and special guidelines for athletics, such as longer breaks during matches.
A vote on schedules was pushed to later today, as recommended by Bradley Layfield, the DIAA’s chair.
The decision affects thousands of students, their families and fans. Last fall, more than 13,000 students participated in fall sports in Delaware, said Jeremy Jeanne, Delaware Military Academy’s athletic director and president of the Delaware Association of Athletic Directors. More than 3,000 played football.
The decision puts Delaware in line with multiple states that have begun fall high school sports, Jeanne said, and local youth leagues. It also builds on the 26th modification to Gov. John Carney’s State of Emergency order governing coronavirus, issued this month.
The news was welcome to John Wilson, a football coach at St. Georges Tech. “We want to play football as early as possible,” he said before the vote.
Wilson had briefed the association on the nine schools playing football, out of 44 in the state represented by the Delaware Interscholastic Football Coaches Association. Those schools have had 4,500 screenings and no confirmed cases of coronavirus, he said.
“We treat this like a wellness place,” Wilson said of how the physical benefits of athletics also help students’ mental well-being. “The kids have really embraced this,” he said about players using masks, admitting that “they didn’t like it at first.”
Layfield said input involved hundreds of pages of documentation, including almost 200 emails, almost entirely requesting fall sports start as soon as possible.
“We need to be better than anyone else,” said Dr. Bradley Bley, a sports medicine specialist in Middletown and a member of the DIAA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. Noting his personal experience of being a soccer player and watching youth sports and the person-to-person contact that occurs, he said, “Medically, it’s safer to say that they have to wear their masks.”
“Mask wearing will just become another rule of the game,” Layfield said. “It’ll be one more thing for the officials looking out for.”
Donna Polk, the DIAA’s executive director, suggested making masks part of uniform rules, “putting the onus on the coach.” She added: “I know it’s difficult for our athletes to play with a mask,” noting that Department of Public Health rules, on, say no-headers in soccer, “compromise the game.”
How sports will change
The DIAA received multiple recommendations on how to enable sports. Bley’s rundown included:
- Breaking matches after about 15 to 20 minutes to allow for some mask-free breathing. That’s based on analysis of how performance declines after 18 to 23 minutes of continuous exercise by members of the military.
- Having two more minutes for rest periods for rehydration, hand cleaning and mask-free breathing – but no coaching. Sanitization and hydration stations should be limited to small pods.
- Masks recommended for all, except for swimmers and runners, who can use staggered starts.
- Only one sport at a time practicing in a gym, with 30 minutes between to allow for cleaning.
- Banning coaches from using megaphones.
- Requiring vulnerable students – such as those with cardiac, pulmonary or stress disorders – to have approvals to play by their qualified health care provider.
Ultimately, the DIAA is encouraging social distancing and good coronavirus-avoidance behavior at all times, but some details will have to be decided by individual schools. “I certainly encourage all schools and teams to keep their athletes in smaller pods,” Bley said.
The Division of Public Health wants to clear athletes who have diagnosed with coronavirus for when they can return. “They could shut down an entire team” following exposure, Bley said.
Bley said issues remain for wrestling, “where it’s almost impossible to keep a mask on” and for special-needs athletes. “We need to have more discussions with Special Olympics.”
The DIAA considered guidelines from multiple sources, including its own sports medicine committee, the state and the National Federation of State High School Associations. Layfield recommended that the DIAA largely go with the recommendations of its own committee.
Levels of risk
Carney’s latest guidelines divide fall sports into three categories:
- High risk: Activities that involve sustained or repeated close contact, such as ice hockey, basketball, tackle football, boys/mens lacrosse, wrestling, boxing, rugby, competitive cheer, martial arts, ultimate frisbee and pairs figure skating.
- Medium risk: Activities that involve participants in close proximity and typically involve intermittent personal contact, such as baseball, softball, field hockey, girls/womens lacrosse, soccer, flag or 7-on-7 football, team running, running clubs, track and field, team swimming, rowing, sailing, volleyball, dance class, fencing and gymnastics.
- Low risk: Activities that are individual or can be completed with adequate social distancing and no direct physical contact, such as singles tennis, golf, individual running and swimming, pickleball, disc golf, individual biking, surfing, horseback riding, individual sailing, fishing, hunting, motor sports and singles rowing.
“I tried to simplify the guidance that was earlier made public,” Carney said when announcing the 26th modification. “So the main thing is to encourage all athletes, coaches, parents, referees, everybody involved in the event to take the guidance and the guidelines seriously. And the most important thing is to wear a mask.”