Thursday’s proclamation that fall sports could return in the state of Maryland appears to have been a false start, one that penalized the emotions and mental state of public school student-athletes and those who support them.
When high school sports are to be played in the DMV amid the coronavirus pandemic has been discussed and debated ad nauseam for months. On Thursday, Maryland state superintendent of schools Karen Salmon appeared to bring clarity to the matter, but upon further review, she only served to muddy the waters.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Gov. Larry Hogan, Salmon announced that teams could return to the field and begin practicing Oct. 7, with the option of games being played as early as Oct. 27.
Though Salmon’s decision gave school systems the ability to resume activities, the decision to do so is made locally. By Thursday night, those local jurisdictions -- all of which already submitted and had approved plans for athletics to resume -- began speaking out, starting with a tweet from Montgomery County Public schools:
“MCPS will continue with its plans as outlined in the framework for virtual athletics in order to ensure the health and safety of our community. We will work closely with DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services) to review the state’s updated guidance.”
Hours later, the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland (PSSAM) cemented the stance of Montgomery County, releasing a statement on behalf of the twenty-four public school superintendents of Maryland and seemingly rebuking Salmon’s announcement.
“We know that in-person learning is the most effective delivery of education, and we are eager to return children to school buildings. We are just as eager to see students back on the playing fields... if access to sports and other co-curricular activities is only available to students who are privately transported to school, we are exacerbating inequities we are already facing during this pandemic.
“We understand and appreciate the social and emotional toll on students in this virtual environment, and we are keenly aware of the physical and mental benefits of athletics and other co-curricular activities. Public school systems, like many other businesses, industries and even government agencies, are wrestling with a “return to normal;” however, the bar must be higher when it comes to our children. ... As we return to classrooms, so too will we return to play, but the timing may not be perfectly aligned.”
The swift response may have dampened the mood of those who were excited by Salmon’s announcement. For many student-athletes, this was the news they’d been waiting months to hear.
“When I read we might have the opportunity to play, I was super excited,” Quince Orchard’s 4-star defensive tackle Marcus Bradley said. Bradley, a University of Maryland commit, will forego his senior season and early enroll at UMD if the fall season remains pushed to 2021. If the season does start in or around October, it will lend Bradley and others in similar situations the opportunity to play their final high school games before moving on.
“The thought of being able to go out and get in the [Cougar] Dome one more time, whether it’s with fans or not -- just being able to play for QO again, would truly be something that’s special for me,” Bradley said. “I’ve been working hard and crafting [working on my game] like crazy throughout the pandemic. I’m a completely different player than I was last year, so if [Montgomery County] does let us play, I’ll be able to showcase that to everyone that’s supported me through the years and to myself.”
Many student-athletes and coaches shared Bradley’s enthusiasm, lauding the governor and state superintendent for giving them hope that they may return to the field in 2020, but as hopeful as some were, others in the community immediately saw red flags.
Athletics, particularly contact sports, typically have a prolonged ramp-up to ready the body for the grind of a season. Football requires a period of acclimation, and Jennifer Rheeling, chair of the DCSAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee doesn’t believe Oct. 7 to Oct. 27 gives student-athletes enough time.
“It is a strange and questionable decision this far into what would have been a regular season [to play], especially when some jurisdictions haven’t even been engaged in conditioning workouts.
“Experts already advised a longer-than-normal reconditioning period to accommodate for deconditioning and lack of acclimatization. To shorten that is risky for those reasons as well as improper time for teaching skill and technique. Rushing towards competition abruptly lends itself to injury occurrence. Reengagement is critical for the health and well-being, but the sudden reversal seems shortsighted.”
There is also the pandemic. Though rates of positivity and hospitalizations are on the decline, the risk of the virus spreading through a team and ultimately community is still a reality. The lack of an established plan as to how to tackle the possibility is enough to give parent Leonard Randolph cause for pause.
“Do high schools have the budget to keep testing athletes?” Randolph questioned. “Do they have protocols in place if someone tests positive? Who will make decisions to cancel games? How many athletes have to test positive to cancel games?
“I want to see kids get the opportunity to attend college, but not at the expense of their health.”
In less than 24 hours, false hope was given to the athletic community before it was ultimately taken away. Following a day filled with announcements, proclamations and statements, the student-athletes find themselves right back where they started: on the sideline, unsure as to when they will be put back in the game.