The state’s continued start-and-stop approach to high school football is a terrible way to treat our athletes and coaches

When the latest news broke yesterday, I imagine the football coaches and players at Mona Shores, Muskegon, Montague and Oakridge shook their heads in amazement and muttered something like “What now?”

I had that thought, as well. But I also felt a strong sense of disgust with the way our young athletes have been treated throughout the fall sports season.

This really is getting ridiculous. Last Friday the Michigan High School Athletic Association surprised everyone by announcing a new schedule for the last three rounds of the high school football playoffs – Jan. 2 for the long-postponed regional championship games, Jan. 9 for the state semifinals, and Jan. 16 for the state finals.

On Monday, my colleague Jason Goorman and I visited the first renewed practices at Mona Shores and Oakridge. We couldn’t help but wonder, on our way to the schools, how the kids would feel about starting their seasons up again after five long weeks off.

They seemed to be pumped up and eager to continue. They didn’t seem to care that the season was running so late, and they could very well end up playing in the snow and bitter cold.

Then on Tuesday – just one day after their return to practice – the MHSAA suddenly announced that practices were postponed again until Dec. 30. Why? Because new COVID testing procedures are in place for players and coaches, and school personnel need to be trained in applying the tests properly.

The MHSAA said the halt to practice comes “after receiving full details and requirements for the pilot rapid testing program being provided by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.”

“Due to requirements and need for more direction from MDHHS that will be forthcoming in the next week, the MHSAA has instructed schools still participating in those sports to suspend practice immediately.”

Why in the world weren’t these details addressed BEFORE practices began again? Why allow the student-athletes to hit the field and start conditioning again for one single day, then pull the rug out from underneath them – AGAIN?

Mona Shores works on special teams on Monday, when the Sailors and other teams were finally allowed to practice for the remainder of the state playoffs. Photo/Jason Goorman.

All of our area prep football teams began practicing on time in August, but midway through the month, the MHSAA announced that the 2020 football season would be moved to spring 2021.

A few weeks later, on Sept. 4, the MHSAA suddenly reversed direction and announced that the season would be played in the fall, after all, beginning two weeks later. They were allowed to play a shortened seven-game schedule, and all teams were given a pass into the playoffs.

Things went pretty good during the regular season and the first three weeks of the playoffs. Some games were cancelled due to players testing positive, and a few teams backed out of the playoffs due to having significant numbers of COVID cases, but high school football was never identified as a “super spreader” of the disease.

By the time the district finals were played on the weekend of Nov. 14, four Muskegon County teams remained in contention for state titles, and were looking forward to playing for regional championships the following weekend. Then came the statewide spike in COVID cases, which prompted state officials to shut all high school sports down again, indefinitely.

The MHSAA rescheduled the last three rounds of the playoffs for dates in December, but the state did not lift the ban on time to meet that schedule. Then came last Friday, when the MHSAA announced that it had an agreement with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to allow all fall sports, including football, to finish their seasons.

Now we have yet another delay, apparently because nobody bothered to teach the schools how to apply the new tests before practices began. And since practices have to stop again, the remaining playoff games will have to be rescheduled again, taking the season deeper into January.

At this rate the state finals could end up being played on Super Bowl weekend.

I have talked to several people whose immediate reaction was to say “Just skip it,” and declare the season over. A week ago I would have agreed with that, because I think most of the coaches and players had assumed that the season was over, anyway.

But now, after the state got them all pumped up again, and even let them return to practice, I say they have to let them play, and finish what they started. To do anything less would be incredibly wrong. They’ve been jerked around enough.

Some people would undoubtedly say that COVID is what it is – a dangerous, highly contagious, unpredictable disease, and we all have to be ready to adjust. I’m sure they say that high school athletes are not special, and should have to put up with the same type of inconveniences and disappointments we all have to deal with.

I disagree with that last part. High school athletes are special. How many of us come even close to working that hard, day in and day out, to pursue a task that pays nothing? How many of us step out into the public eye, week after week, to represent our communities? How many of us risk public embarrassment if we fumble on the five-yard line as our team is driving for the go-ahead touchdown with 30 seconds remaining?

I recall something that Oakridge Coach Cary Harger said the other day, as his players were practicing: “As tue guys were out there moving around today, I heard a couple say how good it felt. Their mental health has probably gone up volumes just being out there.”

So much for that. One day after feeling the rush of  practicing again, the players  got sideswiped again.  

Some of the coaches and players are probably wondering, at this point, if the remaining playoff games will ever happen. I wish we could promise them that they will, but after all the changes in plans over the past five months, and the way that state officials frequently adjust COVID rules, there’s no way to be certain.

What a shameful way to treat our student-athletes.

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