FHSAA settles on framework for fall sports season

Board votes to keep current calendar intact, make concessions on back end of schedule

Bartram running back Eric Weatherly (21) breaks a tackle at the end of the first half and scores a touchdown against Creekside on Saturday night. (Photo by Ralph D. Priddy)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A five-hour emergency board meeting by the Florida High School Athletic Association in front of an audience that will far outnumber anything in the stands this fall gave high school fans in Florida a sliver of hope.

It took a marathon session in front of a Zoom and YouTube audience that numbered more than 4,000 viewers on Monday night to decide to keep the fall sports calendar essentially the same as it was when the day began — teams can begin practicing July 27 and hold preseason classics the week of Aug. 10.

The board voted down three proposals to push practice back until Aug. 10 and also went against the advice of its own Sports Medicine Advisory Committee to clear the path for fall sports practice to begin next week. Individual school districts will ultimately make the choice on when it is safe for their students to return.

Teams will have the ability to begin seasons at a date they see fit. Testing for COVID-19, crowd size at games and protocol on what happens when an athlete tests positive will all be decisions made at the district level.

After months of debate about how to move forward with the high school sports season, the ruling body in the state of Florida Monday voted 10-5 to keep the current start date of July 27th.

The board asked for another meeting on Friday morning to explore in greater detail information from its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. The FHSAA will also take comments from the public.

Electing to start on time came with a warning from its own advisory committee and it was that information that provided plenty of dialogue throughout the night.

Wewahitchka coach and athletic director Bobby Johns made a motion to allow teams to start when they choose to — the first allowable date is still July 27 — but schools don’t have to start at that time. Quite a few in the state won’t.

Numerous counties who were represented by members of the board said Monday that schools in their districts aren’t in position to start next week. The FHSAA said that it intended to be flexible throughout the season for schools who aren’t in a spot to begin on July 27 don’t have to.

The breakthrough in a slog of a night came with concessions on the backside of the calendar after three separate motions for an Aug. 10 start date were shot down.

Schools would have to declare their intentions on whether they would participate in the state series playoffs by a set date. That date will be determined by the FHSAA.

If they elect not to participate in the state series — for instance, a program in hard-hit Miami-Dade County — they could then play through the end of state series playoffs to essentially have a fuller season. Schools that opt for the state series option would play a normal season, including district games (in Classes 5A and up) and be ranked in the MaxPreps system that determines the playoff field. That way a regular season and the postseason remains somewhat intact.

Schools that elect the non-state series option could fill out a regular season schedule that ends on the date of the final state championship game. Unchanged, that date would be Dec. 12.

On a day when California and Georgia’s state high school associations announced their adjustments to the calendar, Florida finally broke through, although against the advice of its medicine advisory committee. That will no doubt be a point of contention and was already generating feedback on social media from at least one area coach.

Columbia head coach Brian Allen, who has yet to start summer conditioning workouts due to the coronavirus, spoke out shortly after the decision, saying that he refused “to be the Guinea pig.”

“It is our stance that returning to competition for the high-risk sports of football and volleyball at this time is not medically safe,” said Dr. Jennifer Maynard, a family physician and sports medicine doctor at the Mayo Clinic and member of the advisory committee.

Three meetings of its fall sports task force over the past month led to one firm recommendation — pushing the start of practice back two weeks and allow schools to choose from three windows of time between late August and late September on when to kick their seasons off.

That plan, originally referred to as Plan B and piloted by the FHSAA’s Justin Harrison, was ultimately shot down on a 16-0 vote on Monday. Two other motions with Aug. 10 start dates were also stifled.

The bulk of the Monday meeting centered around a report from the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and whether to lend credence to that or not. It was cited by one board member as an editorial more than fact. That report sparked a conversation that splintered off into a dozen different directions.

Maynard presented a report that strongly recommended the delay of football and volleyball, saying that numbers across the state would need to show a 28-day decrease for the committee to say that it felt comfortable games could be held. The state, which has seen a surge in cases in the last six weeks, isn’t close to meeting that criteria.

The committee voted 10-0 to recommend the postponement of football and volleyball and also incorporate waivers for athletes and their parents to sign before participating. A motion to pull a portion of the advisory committee’s suggestion about a COVID-19 questionnaire and essentially a waiver, was voted down on a 12-4 vote.

“It is our moral and ethical duty as the FHSAA SMAC to make sound and fair recommendations to the FHSAA board of directors, based on medical facts, what we know and what we do not know about COVID-19,” Maynard said.

In the sometimes-tense session filled with data points and uncertain return to school start dates and the leadership of executive director George Tomyn called into question, the board heard from all of its members.

Tomyn was publicly against plans to push the start date back and members of the board were passionate on why July 27 wasn’t realistic.

“It’s concerning that we’re asking kids to social distance in school and then we put them on an athletic field and we say, ‘well, we don’t really care about that anymore, we’re going to go and hit each other and we’re going to do this,‘” said Mark Schusterman of Riviera Prep and a member of the FHSAA board.

School districts around the state have been discussing return to campus plans, some of them that include return to school start dates that are pushed back by a couple weeks.

St. Johns County has asked for a two-week delay in starting. Clay and Duval counties are exploring delayed start dates. Nassau County is looking at an Aug. 10 return. Districts in other parts of the state, including those in the Miami-Dade and Broward county regions, aren’t as far along in their return to school plans. Those counties are still in Phase 1 of their reopening. School can’t reopen until Phase 2.

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.