By Maurice Patton
In a virtual press conference following Wednesday’s meeting of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association’s Board of Control, executive director Bernard Childress reiterated that the state high school sports governing body is committed to providing a positive playing experience for its athletes in the face of the current coronavirus pandemic.
Following Monday’s announcement by Governor Bill Lee to extend his COVID-19 State of Emergency executive order regarding public activities until Aug. 29, the TSSAA faces the task of determining a path for football and girls soccer – originally scheduled to begin regular-season play the week of Aug. 17 – to get in as much of their seasons as possible.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to make this happen some kind of way, for those kids to have a season,” Childress said, mindful that the pandemic already forced a cancellation of the Division I girls and boys basketball state tournaments and the entire spring sports seasons of the 2019-20 school year.
Football and girls soccer are receiving the majority of the attention because the other TSSAA-sanctioned fall sports of cross country, golf and volleyball have been deemed as lower risks in terms of contact and are currently set to take place as originally scheduled.
During the BOC meeting, four options for football were developed that will be sent to member schools for their feedback. The board is expected to reconvene remotely on July 8 and decide on one of those four, all of which would have teams beginning practice on Aug. 30 and opening their regular-season schedules on Sept. 18.
Simultaneously, the TSSAA is in conversation with the Governor’s Task Force regarding the possibility of applying the same guidelines for collegiate and professional contact sports at the high school level. Lee’s executive order that limited such events included an exemption for the state’s college and pro teams.
“We understand why we are in the position we are in,” Childress said. “When you look at the NCAA teams being exempt, as well as the professional ranks being exempt, that’s totally understandable. (But) we do feel like we’re getting information from the same individuals, the same infectious disease experts that they are.
“We feel comfortable that during competition, we can handle the physical distancing and we can handle all the modifications we need to handle to keep the game as safe as possible, just like they’re doing. They’re willing to listen to us to see if what we lay out to them would even give them pause to say ‘we can exempt you all and let you play earlier than what we’ve laid out’.”
Absent an exemption for high school contact sports, the four options member schools will consider for resuming Division I and Division II football are:
1) Beginning practice on Aug. 30 and regular-season play on Sept. 18, with the state office setting a seven-week region schedule for all schools. The postseason would take place as typically constructed, with non-playoff teams allowed to play an additional two games.
2) Beginning practice on Aug. 30 and regular-season play on Sept. 18, with the state office setting an eight-week region schedule for all schools. The top two teams from each region (rather than four per usual) would advance into the playoffs, with non-playoff teams allowed to play an additional two games.
3) Beginning practice on Aug. 30 and regular-season play on Sept. 18, with schools keeping their current schedules and opening against their Week 5 opponent. Schools would play their currently scheduled Week 3 opponent in Week 12 and their Week 4 opponent in Week 13. Region champions only would advance into the playoffs, with non-playoff teams allowed to play an additional game.
4) Beginning practice on Aug. 30 and regular-season play on Sept. 18, with schools keeping their current schedules and opening against their Week 5 opponent. Games from Weeks 1-4 would be moved to Weeks 12-15. There would be no postseason play.
If Options 1 or 2 are adapted, Childress said region schedules could be set almost immediately. Teams would then be allowed to schedule non-region games individually as dates would be available.
The likelihood is that the girls soccer season will be extended in order for those teams to reschedule any missed contests prior to Aug. 30.
“Girls soccer is less complicated than football,” Childress said. “District play is not required, but they do have to decide how to seed their district tournament if everyone doesn’t play everyone.”
Along with football and girls soccer, wrestling, basketball and competitive cheer/stunt are limited by the Governor’s executive order to weightlifting, conditioning and fundamental practice with no contact with any other student-athlete, while maintaining social distance.
Although there is a financial component to the importance of a football season being played – “Not only (do those gates) fund football, but it has a domino effect; they’re taking some of that funding to fund some of their non-revenue sports,” Childress said – the larger impact is on the student-athletes themselves.
“No one has really touched on this, but … we’re getting research from the (National Federation of State High School Associations) sports medicine advisory committee. The University of Wisconsin has done research that stunned me: 66 percent of our kids right now are suffering from depression because they’re not being allowed to get out and socialize with their friends,” Childress said. “They’re not being allowed to participate in school activities.
“We want kids to participate in as many games as they possibly can.”
Maurice Patton is the editor for Southern Middle Tennessee Sports. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mopatton_sports.