KIRIK: High school teams face simple choice — follow safety plan or deal with consequences
After weeks of passionate debate in Pennsylvania, the PIAA voted Friday to allow the high school fall sports seasons during an ongoing pandemic.
No matter which side of the argument you're on — sports or no sports — the path forward is now clear.
If PIAA athletes, coaches, teams, parents, administrators and school boards want to go forward with the sports seasons, the hard work begins Monday. Teams must closely follow their schools' return-to-play safety plans.
The coaches and athletes must not view the PIAA vote in the same way many Pennsylvania residents viewed the governor's green phase of reopening — as a green light.
The PIAA's approval simply shifts the responsibility for the seasons — and student-athletes' safety — to the school district, athletic department and team levels.
For that reason, the PIAA vote is not an end to this saga. It's the beginning of the toughest part.
I have a sentimental spot in my heart for the student-athletes who were longing to compete, especially the seniors. Many of the same athletes lost their spring seasons and risked losing the fall seasons, if not the entire academic year of sports.
However, sentimentality and compassion are not the same as common sense. Just wanting sports to go forward does not make it the right decision.
I know many smart, responsible people who think that a high school sports season is an awful idea as COVID-19 still grips the country and much of Pennsylvania. I respect that point of view, and they might be right.
Many people who opposed the fall seasons feel that it's too risky to gather teenagers together to compete at a time when some schools believe that it's not safe for students to return to the classroom. Many believe that sports will present the ideal opportunity for COVID-19 to spread. Many fear that parents, grandparents and at-risk people could be affected.
One of the biggest problems in dealing with the coronavirus and sports is that many of the things that make sports a great experience are the same factors that lead to spread of the virus.
Teenagers are drawn to each other socially with an almost gravitational pull. They want to congregate and celebrate together.
Parents love to sit next to each other in the stands and gather immediately after games. That became clear at a high school football game in Utah recently when the game was stopped so that officials could enforce social distancing in a large crowd that was bunched in the middle of the stands.
Coaches must resist the urge to let up on the safety regulations, especially if things are going well and no cases are being reported. Athletes and parents must resist the urge to gather in activities such as sleepovers, team dinners and postgame house parties.
The good news is that teenagers have played in golf and tennis tournaments for much of the summer, and we've had no reports of the virus spreading because of it..
Another good sign is that many fall teams have been conducting voluntary offseason workouts since early or mid-July without reports of serious virus spread.
It will be interesting to see how successful the safety plans will be for each of the fall sports. Cross country and soccer are similar because athletes often compete shoulder to shoulder but also are spread apart frequently.
Volleyball and water polo are similar because they both take place indoors, often with athletes face to face in close proximity.
When it comes to the virus, though, the most monitored sport will be football, where players are in constant contact in tight spaces. That all starts with heat acclimatization, followed by full-contact practices.
Some Pennsylvania leagues and school districts have opted out of the fall seasons. Many other school districts still must decide this week if their athletes will compete.
No one knows what will happen in PIAA sports in the weeks ahead. No one knows if full seasons will be played, or if some sports will have their seasons shut down.
There will be cases of COVID-19 around the state, and some schools are bound to reconsider their athletes' participation if there are spreading incidents.
For the teams that are permitted to take the field, the mission is clear.
If they follow the safety plans, they have a chance to compete, although it's no guarantee.
If they stray from the plans, they probably won't be competing long.