To Play Or Not To Play?

By Gary Lloyd 

I don’t have the answers. I’m not a doctor. I’m not an epidemiologist. I’m also not a pontificator. 

Does anyone right now know, unequivocally, that we should start the high school fall sports season on time? Should we delay it a week? A month? Cancel it altogether? 

I don’t know that. And I’m not going to pretend to know and shove my opinion on COVID-19 on you for the sake of some website clicks. I suppose that makes me the black sheep of column writers in 2020. Oh, well.

Hewitt-Trussville at Oak Mountain in 2019 (photo by Gary Lloyd)

Here’s what I can say: I believe the Alabama High School Athletic Association wouldn’t have made the decision to start the fall sports season on time without considering all the data and expert opinions that it could. This wasn’t some haphazard, shoot-from-the-hip decision. 

The AHSAA Central Board of Control on July 22 approved the AHSAA’s Return to Play “Best Practices” recommended guidelines for return to play. 

Fall sports teams have the option to begin fall workouts July 27 with the first week used by football for acclimation purposes only with helmets and shorts only. The other fall sports — volleyball, cross country, and swimming and diving — can use the first week for acclimation and tryouts. Schools not choosing that option may start fall practice on Aug. 3.

The first contest can be Aug. 20.

AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese praised the Central Board for its leadership and commitment providing member schools the tools to return to play as safely as possible.

“The purpose of the Return to Play document is to offer AHSAA member schools best practices in order to commence the 2020-21 school year athletic seasons as scheduled and as safely as possible,” Savarese said. 

The Return to Play document became available July 23. Among the highlights for football are:

1. Individuals should maintain social distancing of 6 feet at all times while in the team box.

2. Individuals should not share uniforms, towels and other apparel and equipment.

3. The ball should be cleaned and sanitized throughout the contest as recommended by the ball manufacturer. Ball handlers should maintain social distancing of 6 feet at all times during the contest.

4. Officials may use an electronic whistle and wear cloth face coverings.

5. All individuals, including each player and official when brought out on the field during timeouts, should have their own beverage container.

6. Suspend handshakes during the coin toss, pregame and postgame.

7. Players, coaches, team personnel and game administration officials should wash and sanitize their hands as often as possible.

8. Gloves and cloth face coverings are permissible for all coaches, team staff and game administration officials.

9. Non-essential personnel should be restricted from the field during the contest.

Vestavia Hills players and head coach Buddy Anderson embrace after a game (photo by Gary Lloyd)

10. If available, dressing facilities for game officials and teams should be large enough for them to use social distancing protocols and should be properly

“Football is outside, and kids are constantly moving around,” said one Birmingham-area high school football coach. “It’s pretty much been shown that prolonged exposure (at least 10 minutes) in small spaces to an infected person is the major way it’s transferred.” 

Another Birmingham-area football coach said he thought the AHSAA handled the uniqueness of this season well. 

“I think the AHSAA did a very good job of considering all options for the safety of our players,” he said. “The idea of continuing football while some schools are virtual only for the first nine weeks is doable because of the smaller group and the protections afforded to our athletes. I believe we have shown through the summer that we can have a good success following health department guidelines for safety. I salute (Steve) Savarese and the Central Board of Control for their consideration of continuing the much-needed activities involved in athletics.”

Three words in that last quote are what I guess I’ll be the most opinionated about here. “Much-needed activities” is exactly how I feel. We need sports. We need band. We need activities. They’re not only fun, but they can be healing during difficult times. When you’re on a sideline or in the bleachers, don’t you forget about life’s problems, even if for just four quarters? I know I do. 

Is there risk? Yes. There’s risk in anything — driving on the interstate, being tackled on the football field, gathering publicly during a pandemic. We can’t cancel events, sports and gatherings forever. No one wants to get sick or get someone else, especially those of high risk, sick. 

We can, however, make the best and safest decisions possible with the information we have at hand. That’s what is happening now with the AHSAA. 

I hope this season is a success. I hope no one gets sick, even if you say that’s unrealistic. I hope fans and teams take the proper precautions. I hope sophomores find their way to varsity rosters and that seniors go out on a high note, in November or December. I hope I bake on the field at Lions Pride Stadium at Briarwood Christian School in September, under an echo of pregame prayer, and freeze at Oak Mountain’s Heardmont Park in November while watching Evan Smith slither through opposing defenses.

Cris Bell Evan Smith
Oak Mountain quarterback Evan Smith and head coach Cris Bell during a game against Hoover (photo by Gary Lloyd)

I hope Vestavia Hills head coach Buddy Anderson gets a Gatorade bath in his final season and that Hoover head coach Josh Niblett preaches about work ethic to me at 10:15 p.m. at The Hoover Met. I hope Hewitt-Trussville sets more scoring records and that Spain Park returns to the Class 7A playoffs. 

I hope Mountain Brook shines in Class 6A and that Homewood bounces back for a winning season. I hope Pinson Valley and Clay-Chalkville play into seven overtimes on Oct. 16 and that Thompson hosts a College GameDay-like atmosphere when Hoover comes to Alabaster on Oct. 23. 

I hope that Leeds returns to its winning ways and that Mortimer Jordan wins more than 10 games for a third straight year. I hope Gardendale ascends in Class 6A and that Shades Valley does the same. 

I hope student-athletes and their parents revel in seeing their names in newsprint and on Twitter for positive things they do on and off the field. I hope coaches are complimented for their leadership and not yelled at from their home bleachers. I hope game officials see the holding penalties you know they missed, and that they are not the focus of any game’s outcome. 

I hope your team wins, whether your allegiance lies in Muscle Shoals or Mobile, Scottsboro or Spanish Fort. I hope your son, friend and brother makes a game-clinching interception. I hope you tap your feet as bands play loud fight songs and that you admire the color guard’s performances. I hope you clap when cheerleaders flip, and I hope you eat hot dogs and nachos for Friday dinner for 10 straight weeks. 

I hope you watch from under thick blankets in freezing cold November and that you have plenty of Hot Hands stuffed in your jacket pockets. I hope you wave to me and say hello when you see me at any of these games. Who knows, I may have extra Hot Hands. 

And, of course, I hope you stay safe during this pandemic, whether you agree with the games being played on or not. 

Now, let’s put the ball in the air. It’s game time. 


See all the best practices for fall sports here

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