Commentary: FHSAA should start practices, but wait a little longer to begin the season

Bartram Trail running back A.J. Jones runs for one of his three touchdowns against Nease during a Week 8 game. Bartram won the game 52-22. (Ralph D. Priddy, Contributed photo)
Bartram Trail running back A.J. Jones runs for one of his three touchdowns against Nease during a Week 8 game. Bartram won the game 52-22. (Ralph D. Priddy, Contributed photo)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – On Friday, the Florida High School Athletic Association will come together for its third board of directors meeting since last month in hopes of nailing down some direction on the 2020-21 season.

At least that is the hope.

I’ve heard from so many players, coaches and athletic directors over the past month, saying much the same thing: We want to play.

And we want you to play.

I think I speak for just about everyone — media, sports medicine personnel, parents, coaches, politicians — in saying that it just doesn’t seem right without high school sports cranking up.

If I was advising the board, what would my call on the season be at this point in time?

Wait. Not for a whole lot longer. Just for a few more weeks. But wait.

The sports medicine advisory committee has recommended waiting until several weeks have passed after students return to brick and mortar campuses and see how that works before signing off on sports.

That’s a fair assessment with the least amount of disruption possible from a group that I consider to be the most neutral party in the entire equation. We know that coaches want to coach, players want to play, board members want to get back to focusing on their day jobs and the FHSAA wants to get back to governing sports and not broadcasting board meetings.

I suggest allowing practices to start in counties where it’s permitted on Aug. 24 but push higher risk regular season games back in football until later in September. The SEC starts on Sept. 26. How about penciling in Sept. 25 as Week 1 for high school football here?

That allows schools to dip a toe into the water of returning to competition while aiming for a seven- or eight-game regular season and allowing data to trickle in as students return to campuses.

That regular season assumes a football team can play a week of double games under a Monday-Friday or Monday-Saturday alignment. That’s something we see a bit of during hurricane season anyway.

That partially satisfies the medical committee’s initial request and gives a buffer for what is certain to be an increase in COVID-19 cases as students return to in-person learning. We’ve seen schools in Georgia struggle with increases in cases as students have returned to campus. Imagine if regular season football games were still scheduled to kick off on Friday?

To me, that’s reasonable for a time like this. No group is going to come away from this satisfied with the outcome, especially areas where COVID-19 cases aren’t nearly as dramatic as they are in certain hotspots. That’s a given. It, like most everything these days, becomes too politicized and personal.

The FHSAA has plenty of incentive, too, to want to get things back to normal as possible. There is financial incentive. It makes money when games are played. There is history. And there is political pressure from the top. Gov. Ron DeSantis has been very open about his desire to get the games going again, both in high school and in college. That carries significant weight.

FHSAA executive director George Tomyn mentioned several times during earlier board meetings that he was following the lead of the state. The FHSAA has been targeted multiple times by lawmakers in Florida since 2012, including a proposal in 2015 that sought to eradicate the FHSAA and have the education commissioner replace it with a new model. Know the saying about don’t rock the boat?

We’re not at a point like the Big Ten or the Pac-12 and debating to pull the plug on an entire four-month stretch of sports. Not even close. And canceling high school sports here hasn’t been an option on the table at all. Sports will be played in Florida this season, that I’m sure of. I don’t think we’ll see a full playoff stretch in football. I think many coaches will be content with a semblance of a regular season.

I’ve listened to every second of the fall sports task force and emergency board of directors meetings and come away, like most viewers, asking what did I just witness?

With more input and material than before, and the public’s ability to comment at the meeting, I’m convinced that Friday will be the most prepared that board members will be as they decide.

It has no doubt been a bad look for the FHSAA over the summer, and the past eight weeks have amplified that. Other states that are commonly compared to Florida in terms of football dominance (California, Georgia and Texas) have had plans in place for weeks on their fall seasons.

The steady stream of correspondence from Georgia High School Association executive director Robin Hines has made many here ask how the FHSAA could have been so out of touch with the reality of the situation. Hines has cranked out updates on an almost weekly basis since mid-March and done multiple interviews on the state’s situation.

His Wednesday update was the GHSA’s 22nd during the pandemic. Hines’ counterpart in Florida, Tomyn, has largely been silent. The FHSAA put out five updates in March and a final one in April.

Coaching salaries aren’t the only thing that are significantly better across the state line.

In case you were wondering how we got to this point.

A fall sports task force committee was tabbed with putting suggestions together for the board to scrutinize and vote on. Their input was largely cast aside for the status quo of starting on time.

The first emergency board of directors meeting went sideways once the sports medicine advisory committee was granted permission to present its data as information. Two board members voted against that information — yes, information! — even being read.

When that meeting was done, the vote was 10-5 to start the season on time, July 27, even as the majority of the state’s districts said that they were in no shape to start.

The FHSAA said that it would permit school districts to have the final say on when they wanted to begin, and that came rolling in loud and clear in the following days. I had an area principal tell me that it’s common knowledge districts have the final say, but that it was embarrassing that the FHSAA couldn’t at least provide the framework of that to build off of.

When one district after another announced plans to push back practice start dates, that made the decision that the FHSAA wouldn’t make for it.

Once the dust settled and board members heard from their constituents, and public outcry over dismissing a medical report from those who advise the FHSAA, the board did a 180 and re-voted just three days later to push the season back and revisit things in mid-August.

And here we are, back again for what should be the final hurdle for a return to sports.

We hope.

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