Playing high school fall sports, including football, received a unanimous vote of support Wednesday from the sports medicine committee of the Maine Principals’ Association.
That 12-member panel recommended the interscholastic football, soccer, field hockey, golf, volleyball and cross country seasons all proceed — with modifications established by the individual MPA sports committees to address safety issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The MPA Interscholastic Management Committee is expected to make a final decision on Wednesday’s recommendation during an emergency meeting slated for Thursday afternoon.
“This is a working document,” MPA interscholastic executive director Mike Burnham said of the sports medicine committee’s recommendations, which were approved after an executive session that lasted more than 2 1/2 hours.
“This virus is going to decide if we’re going to be able to complete a season or not. We all understand that as things change we’re going to have to look at everything that we’re doing from a full educational standpoint,” he said. “This isn’t just about athletics, this is how we deliver education. This is a piece of an overall educational plan.”
If the interscholastic management committee approves a fall sports season, each school system will then have the option to either participate or opt out. At least three schools — Camden Hills of Rockport, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone and Deer Isle-Stonington — already have decided not to offer fall sports this year.
Much of Wednesday’s discussions focused on football. Fred Lower, athletic administrator at Hampden Academy and chairman of the MPA Football Committee, presented a recommendation that begins Sept. 8 with a three-week preseason that includes one controlled scrimmage.
“We wanted a three-week preseason to acclimate the players into a contact sport with pads, and it also allows those three weeks to evaluate how things are working and so you’re not rushed into anything,” Lower said.
Burnham said the three-week preseason would match the duration of preseason football workouts that has been the norm in recent years.
A regionalized six-game, regular-season schedule would start Sept. 25-26, leading to a modified postseason that has yet to be determined.
“When those regional schedules are in process there will be some cross-class [games],” Lower said, “but there was close attention paid to safety in those contests and making sure we’re not putting a perennial Class A power up against a middle-of-the-pack or low-pack Class C school.”
More than two-thirds of states are going ahead with tackle football this fall, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. As of Tuesday, 16 states and the District of Columbia had elected not to play.
“It’s important that we continue to look across the country at states that have opened up football already and haven’t shown any increase in transmission of the COVID illness, which was one of the big reasons we based our decision on saying it was OK to go ahead with football,” said Dr. William Heinz, chairman of the MPA Sports Medicine Committee. “But we are going to watch that on a very close basis and if things change we may have to change our recommendation.”
Lower said the MPA Football Committee met Monday to formulate its recommendations, with physical distancing among linemen a major discussion point.
“A general football play lasts from five to seven seconds,” he said. “It’s unrealistic for an offensive lineman to block a defensive lineman for seven continuous seconds, and an average high school football game has about 80 plays, so if you do the math it’s less than 10 minutes of close exposure in a game.”
While football is considered a high-risk sport by both the NFHS and Maine Department of Economic and Community Development’s community sports guidelines, soccer was ranked as moderate risk by the NFHS and high risk according to the community standards.
Field hockey and volleyball are considered moderate-risk sports, while cross country and golf are ranked as low-risk sports.
“One of the aspects that we take into consideration is how the sports are classified. I think the low- and moderate-risk sports are fairly easy. I think we can safely say that those sports can play,” said Heinz, a former chairman of the NFHS sports medicine committee. “They’ve based that from the CDC and from the [U.S.] Olympic Committee, so I’m willing to put soccer in a moderate-risk category.”
Modifications recommended for soccer this fall include eliminating slide tackling and mandating that players be spaced at least 3-6 feet apart on indirect and direct kicks, essentially eliminating tight defensive “walls” in the penalty box.
Also recommended for soccer was a limit of five offensive players and five defensive players — not including the goalie — in the penalty box on corner kicks and throw-ins to that area.
Other guidelines supported by the sports medicine committee would apply to all sports and involve player health screening, sanitizing of game balls and other equipment, social distancing and the use of face coverings, and using individual water bottles and not sharing any supplies or equipment.
Additional issues include expanding the size of player areas on the sidelines, limiting locker room use and regulating the number of people allowed in pregame conferences.
Golf would use guidelines developed by the Maine State Golf Association that were approved by the governor’s office in late May and have been used at tournaments around the state this summer.
Some issues remain to be determined for the different sports. They include how to organize the finish-line area at cross country meets to provide for physical distancing, particularly when some runners may be discomforted at the end of their 3-mile run.
Conducting events while adhering to mass-gathering limits is another consideration for larger cross country meets and other sports, particularly if and when spectators are included.
If Wednesday’s recommendations are approved, tryouts for all fall sports except football would begin Sept. 1 for most Aroostook County schools and Sept. 8 for all other schools. The first countable games would then be played no earlier than Sept. 11 for the early starting County schools and no sooner than Sept. 18 elsewhere.
“We truly emphasize the school safety plans that are being developed,” Burnham said. “We know there’s been a tremendous amount of work that’s gone into each district’s COVID-19 plan and that would fit very nicely with any of our activities.”