Frustration grows as MHSAA tries to restart winter sports

NILES — As the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office continue to extend the pause on contact high school sports, the frustration is growing in players, coaches, players and administrators.

After Friday’s announcement by Gov. Whitmer that contact sports — boys and girls basketball, wrestling and competitive cheer — can continue non-contact practices, but no competition until at least Feb. 21, Michigan High School Athletic Association Executive Director spoke up.

Uyl continues to vent his frustration with the MDHHS and Whitmer over the fact that the state is not involved in conversations about orders issued to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Whitmer was hosting an update with the media Friday morning, Uyl and the MHSAA were wrapping up the 2020-21 fall sports season, which finally got started in September, and made it through 90-plus percent of its schedule before the state shut down all high school sports on Nov. 15.

What was supposed to be a three-week pause turned into nearly two months off for football, volleyball and girls swimming and diving teams, which were poised to conclude their seasons in a matter of three weeks or less.

The pause also halted girls’ basketball preseason drills, which had already started, and the upcoming preseason practices for the rest of the winter sports teams.

Uyl said last August that the state was determined to have three sports seasons. He also said the state would do everything possible to make them as close to traditional sports seasons as possible.

With the latest guidelines set to expire on Feb. 21, it is evident that winter sports will not have a traditional season.

“We are unable to provide specific plans yet as we are still evaluating the best options for delivering a memorable experience for 60,000 athletes involved in winter contact sports,” he said Monday afternoon. “We will continue asking questions and advocating for all of our schools and athletes as we work toward building our next plans for seasons in basketball, competitive cheer, ice hockey and wrestling. We will be ready with specific timelines as soon as MDHHS clears contact sports to begin full activity.

“We have said from the start of the 2020-21 school year that we would do everything possible to have three seasons and play all three to completion. Our strong advocacy for all sports and seasons — and especially winter sports — continues every day.”

The MDHHS also released a statement on Monday trying to clarify why winter contact sports are not being allowed to start, even though the state is opening up other areas, including in-person dining at restaurants, on Feb. 1.

“We are pleased to continue incrementally reopening the economy with the recent MDHHS order,” the statement reads. “Counties around the country have faced outbreaks of COVID-19 associated with sports teams. In Michigan, there were 42 outbreaks associated with athletics (K-12 schools, professional, collegiate and commercial venues) in August and September of 2020 before restrictions on contact sports were implemented, and MDHHS and local health departments are still identifying outbreaks on teams that are currently playing. Outbreaks of this magnitude have the potential to affect not just a sports team, but the community in which the players and coaches reside as well.”

As far as sports are concerned, the MDHHS is using social distancing as its main reason to keep athletes on the sidelines.

“Sports that require frequent closeness between players make it more difficult to prevent disease transmission, compared to sports where players are not as close to each other,” the statement continued. “The risk of COVID-19 transmission is increased by the number of individuals a player physically interacts with, as well as the intensity and duration of that interaction. The arrival of the new B.1.1.1.7 variant also means even more caution must be taken so we avoid the rapid rise in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths that other countries that have seen this variant have experienced.

“Even with mitigation measures in place, such as wearing of masks, disease transmission cannot be completely prevented when players are in prolonged or intense contact. Contact sports include the following: football, basketball, rugby, field hockey, soccer, lacrosse, wrestling, hockey, boxing, futsal and martial arts with opponents. These risks are even greater for indoor contact sports where there is not natural ventilation to mitigate the close proximity of participants.”

The department said it would continue to monitor the situation and work toward its goal of getting vaccines into arms.

“Teams that can implement robust public health measures may be able to decrease risk, but risk remains elevated,” the MDHHS said. “We will continue to carefully watch the data to assess what other activities can be permitted. We are also laser-focused on achieving our goal of vaccinating at least 70 percent of Michiganders age 16 and up as quickly as possible so we can end this pandemic and get back to a sense of normalcy.”

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