It will seem like a return to a somewhat normal life seeing the football field lights on in small towns around Minnesota on a Friday night. They are symbolic of town and school pride, life before the COVID-19 pandemic. Also welcomed back will be the girls’ volleyball competition, but it will be almost hidden in gymnasiums where few can watch.
The Minnesota State High School League’s (MSHSL) reversal of its early August decision to move football and volleyball to the spring was received by many athletes and coaches with excitement. Many parents of seniors who were in volleyball or football and wanted to see their kids have a chance to play, also cheered.
Make no mistake – it is a conditional return. A surge in COVID-19 cases in a school district could bring a school’s sports season to a bitter and quick end.
A league survey asking its 500 member schools whether they wanted football and volleyball to take place in the fall saw 394 responses with 80 percent saying yes to football and 76 percent to volleyball. The league got the message. Its board of directors voted 15-3 to begin football and 14-4 for volleyball to start.
Football games will be limited to 250 spectators. No fans will be allowed at indoor matches in school facilities.
“The plan, which fits within COVID-19 guidance of the Minnesota Department of Health, will have an approved football season beginning on Sept. 28 with the first of six regular season games scheduled for the week of Oct. 5,” the MSHSL stated in a press release. With the first game Friday night, Oct. 9, the regular season would stretch out to Nov. 13. There are plans for a regional two-week football postseason that would end Nov. 28. There will be no state tournament.
Volleyball’s 11-week season can start Monday with the first matches taking place Thursday, Oct. 8. The league has also approved two weeks of postseason play starting the week of Nov. 30.
Minnesota high schools have been allowed to have their athletes participate in training in anticipation that the league would be reconsidering its initial decision to suspend football and volleyball for the fall. Tennis and cross-country teams, both sports that are outside and have built-in social distancing in their competitions, started their competitive seasons with the start of classes.
“Today’s decision, based on what we currently know and with the unknowns of what spring will bring, is based on the belief that playing now provides us the best opportunity to play a football and volleyball season,” the league stated.
One argument made by those pushing for fall football rather than having it in the spring was the fields could be frozen if winter lingers into March, or too wet to play on if the frost is going out, and rain or snow melt make them a mess.
September 15, the board conducted a lengthy workshop that included the Minnesota Department of Health providing updated information on how COVID-19 spreads and steps necessary for preventing athletes from getting infected.
“The decisions by our board of directors both provide opportunities for many student athletes and also require everyone’s responsible actions in keeping students and communities safe,” League Executive Director Erich Martens said. “It will be critical that our schools do their very best to enact protocols that maximize the safety of our students, coaches and officials.”
In making their decision, the League also stressed that “all aspects of athletics, including practices, competitions, transportation, and facility usage must align with the requirements of the Minnesota Department of Education Return to Learning models, must follow the requirements from the Minnesota Department of Health’s Guidance on Youth Sports, and must include the required actions identified in the Governor’s Executive Orders.”
But the league’s announcement of the return of football and volleyball comes at a time when western Minnesota is seeing a surge in its COVID-19 cases. It comes at a time when there is a combative rejection of wearing masks, the most effective method of preventing the spread of the disease when around others. It comes when social distancing has been blown off by many.
Stevens, Swift, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle and Yellow Medicine counties are seeing their worst month for COVID-19 cases with three days yet to go in September.
And it could get cold late in the football season. By the time the last regular season game is played Nov. 13, the average high is 40 degrees and the average low 23 degrees. But the record low high is 17 degrees and the record low minus 3 degrees.
We remember playing a high school football game in Morris on a Saturday afternoon in the late fall after a winter storm had cancelled the Friday night matchup. The field was rock hard in the bitterly cold air that flowed in from the north as the low-pressure system that brought the storm fled to the east. There were numerous injuries, some serious, due the cold and hard field.
We know that if athletes suddenly start showing up with COVID-19 it could abruptly end a team’s season if half of its members are quarantined for 14 days. Will this lead some athletes or parents to hide the fact they have been exposed to COVID-19, or are sick with it? We would guess in some cases it will. Many of the cases are very mild; but more than 1,400 Minnesotans and 205,000 Americans have died from it. Tens of thousands of others have been left with lingering side effects, including lung and heart problems.
Whether or not we make it through this late fall sports season is going to be a test of just how willing we are to take the precautions required to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the coming days and weeks. The real winners and losers may be determined not on the field, but in the community.