HEISER: Wolf's comments, Maryland's decision, league delays don't bode well for fall contact sports

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf
  • Gov. Tom Wolf weighed in on the possibility of fall sports in Pennsylvania on Monday.
  • Wolf doesn't see how schools with virtual learning can have contact sports.
  • Many York County schools are shifting their focus to more online learning in the fall.

Monday was not a good day for folks hoping there will be an on-time start to the Pennsylvania fall sports season in 2020.

In fact, there was ominous news on several fronts, especially for contact sports such as football, soccer and field hockey.

First, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf — the man who almost certainly will have the final say on making the fall call on high school sports — gave a decidedly pessimistic outlook on the subject.

“I’m not sure we’ve figured out exactly how we can do this, but what happens in schools should be consistent with what happens on the playing fields,” Wolf said at a joint news conference with state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine. “In other words, if the school is going completely virtual, it seems hard to justify having in-person contact sports being played in the fall. If the school is going to be open and feels it’s safe — if teachers, administrators, parents feel it’s safe to reopen — that’s a different proposition for contact sports.”

Fall sports in serious jeopardy: With more York County schools shifting their focus to online learning options for the fall, Wolf’s comments on Monday make it seem unlikely he will give the final OK for fall contact sports, at least for schools that are using completely virtual systems for education.

CLOSER LOOK: York County school districts' focus shifts to virtual learning amid shutdown uncertainty

Currently, the only York County district to go completely virtual this fall is the West Shore School District, which includes Red Land High School, located in northern York County. A number of other districts, however, are moving forward with hybrid models, which include some online and some in-school education.

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Reading between the lines of Wolf’s comments, it would seem especially unlikely that high-contact sports, such as football, soccer and field hockey, would get his approval. Sports with almost no physical contact, such as golf and girls’ tennis, would seem to have a much better chance of receiving Wolf’s blessing. Other sports, such as cross country and girls’ volleyball,  seem to fall in between.

At this point, it remains uncertain what Wolf will ultimately do, especially for schools using hybrid models. In Wolf's mind, would some in-person schooling qualify a school to compete in contact sports? Or would Wolf require that schools have full in-person education in order to also have contact sports?

Those questions are yet to be answered.

Maryland says no to fall sports: However, proponents of having a Pennsylvania high school fall season got another bit of unwelcome news on Monday when the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association announced it is postponing the fall and winter high school sports seasons in 2020.

Several other bordering states, such as New York, New Jersey and West Virginia, have already announced delays to their fall seasons.

Maryland’s decision has to be especially worrisome for Pennsylvania prep sports fans because the two states have so much in common. It's certainly not an encouraging precedent.

Two more leagues delay starts: Finally, two more Pennsylvania high school leagues announced delayed starts to their seasons on Monday.

The Harrisburg-based Mid-Penn Conference now says it won't allow its member schools to start formal fall sports practices before Sept. 4, pending local board approvals. The league said more information will be released after Thursday’s meeting of conference athletic directors.

That is seismic news in District 3. The Mid-Penn is generally considered the most powerful high school league in the central Pennsylvania district, both politically and competitively.

The Inter-Academic Athletic League, based in suburban Philadelphia, also said its formal fall sports practices will begin Sept. 14, with the goal of playing league-only games this season, starting in early October.

Previously, the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (also known as District 7) and the East Penn Conference had announced similar delays.

The York-Adams League has not yet announced a decision to delay fall sports, but a possible Sept. 11 start date for practice was discussed at Tuesday's league meeting, as was the elimination of nonleague contests. A Y-A decision could come by the end of the week. 

Spectator ban: Also on Monday, Wolf addressed his current ban on spectators at scholastic sports events. It’s an issue that has caused considerable consternation among the parents of athletes — most especially the parents of senior athletes.

Wolf said more information would be released this week about state sports guidelines.

“In two more days, we’ll have more formal guidelines,” Wolf said. “I hate to sound fuzzy here, but this is a work in progress. The situation changes every day across the state. … We’re just trying to keep up with the virus and trying to give the guidance that we can to help parents feel and students feel, and the teachers and coaches and administrators feel, that they can safely come back to education.”

Outlook dims: Less than a week ago, the outlook looked more upbeat when the PIAA's board of directors voted Wednesday to move forward with a plan that would see fall sports start with a normal, on-time schedule but with a number of precautionary measures.

PIAA board approves start of fall sports season

Even last week, however, there were definite signs that the state may not go along with the PIAA’s plans. Last Tuesday, Levine declined to endorse a recommendation from the PIAA Sports Medicine Advisory Steering Committee that said fall sports could safely begin on time, providing health and safety protocols were followed.

That just served as a precursor to Wolf’s comments on Monday.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, Secretary of Health meets with the media at The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) headquarters, Friday, May 29, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa. (Joe Hermitt/The Patriot-News via AP)

Not all hope is gone: Still, all hope is not yet gone for a fall sports season, at least on a delayed basis and especially for sports that don't feature much physical contact.

The final call has yet to be made. Even Wolf admitted Monday that the state guidance is still very much a “work in progress.”

It also appears that the most recent coronavirus surge in Pennsylvania may have plateaued a bit. If, over the coming weeks, the number of cases actually goes down, Wolf could have a change of heart.

That, however, is probably overly optimistic.

If the governor is willing to severely curtail the business operations of the state’s bars and restaurants, he will almost certainly be willing to do the same to fall sports.

The coming days, however, should give us a clearer picture of what lies ahead.

—Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.