Many years ago, a friend was dating a girl who knew nothing about football. She thought the object of the game was for all the players to run together in a big pile, which is the way many plays end.
I only think of this now because the object of the game seems to be keeping players away from each other for as long as possible. By now, you know the drill when it comes football during a pandemic, especially at the high school level:
In West Virginia, the traditional three-week summer practice period was pushed from June 8-27 to July 6-25 for most counties due to coronavirus concerns. The annual North-South Classic was postponed from June 13 to July 10, then canceled altogether. Then the start of preseason practice was delayed from Aug. 3 to Aug. 17, and in the process, wiped out one scrimmage match and the first week of the regular season, which is now set to begin Sept. 3.
You can almost hear the cheerleaders off in the distance with that time-honored chant (“Push ’em back, push ’em back, wayyy back!”)
But really, what else can be done but to keep delaying contact between players as long as possible? That is, if you intend to play football this fall. Five states have already moved their seasons to the spring — California, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia and Washington. As of this week, 19 other states have pushed back the start of their regular seasons, including West Virginia. On Tuesday, Kentucky announced its regular season will start on Sept. 11 instead of Aug. 21.
The reality is that high school associations are worried about COVID-19 outbreaks when players start sweating, spitting and snorting all over each other. The essence of football, after all, is still blocking and tackling and players have to be up close and personal with each other to accomplish that.
So in West Virginia, athletes who normally would have already had some live contact during the three-week period are still mandated to keep away from each other on the practice field — and don’t even think about practicing against another school. Not yet, anyway. The first time contact is allowed with teammates is now Aug. 25, eight days after preseason drills begin. The first time opposing teams can scrimmage is Aug. 28.
It means that, for most schools in our state, players will not have experienced the rigors of blocking and tackling for nearly 10 months — or since the opening week of last November for teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs.
With all that in mind, don’t rule out another delay for the start of the regular season. If the past five months have told us anything, it’s that circumstances can change with respect to the course of the coronavirus. Witness the way the prep basketball postseason and all of spring sports came to an unceremonious end — first suspended on March 12, then canceled completely on April 21.
Bernie Dolan, executive director of the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission, stressed that the fate of football and all fall sports is ultimately tied up with Gov. Jim Justice’s decision to keep schools closed statewide until Sept. 8.
“You can’t expect schools to be open for athletes,” Dolan said, “if they’re not open for classes.”
If classes do open, what choices does the SSAC have for staging its sports, keeping in mind that football drives the athletic budget at most schools? Interesting that the sport with the most risk also carries the most reward if it’s played.
If other states around the country are used to measure the landscape, then you basically have five choices. Keep the seasons as currently scheduled, push them back a few weeks, flip the seasons of spring sports (less contact) with fall sports (more contact), crunch all of them — fall, winter and spring — into truncated seasons from December-June (like Virginia proposes) or simply cancel fall sports and hope for the best come winter and spring.
Dolan said the SSAC still hopes to keep its fall sports schedules, including football, on their present track.
“I don’t think we want to make a decision too early,” Dolan said. “If we can extend it a little longer and hold out, I’m probably willing to do that.”
And what if it come to pass next month that health, education and government officials still feel it’s too dangerous to hold in-person classes or allow athletes to compete in football and soccer games in early September? Would the SSAC be more likely at that point to clip a couple more games off the regular season, or perhaps come up with a system to push football to the spring?
“If we only lost a couple of weeks [off the schedule], and we feel we can still get the season in,” Dolan said, “I’d probably be OK with that.”
George Washington lost another game off its schedule Tuesday with the Kentucky High School Athletic Association’s announcement of delaying its football season until Sept. 11. GW was set to host Ashland Paul Blazer on Sept. 4.
The KHSAA ruling stipulated that the only way its teams can honor out-of-state contracts this season is if the opposing school is from a county that borders Kentucky. Thus, Spring Valley’s Oct. 30 visit to Ashland is still on. GW is talking with Point Pleasant about playing a game on Sept. 4, which is currently an open date for the Black Knights.