The high school football season has been mired in uncertainty since summer, with coaches, players and parents hoping for a resolution with each passing update from the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, which put off a decision as long as possible while it tried to gain approval from the Department of Public Health to play this fall.
But after a three-hour, in-person meeting with DPH to present new mitigation strategies to lower the risk of covid-19 spread, the CIAC announced that its initial ruling to cancel full-contact football for the fall would remain in place, as DPH held firm on its recommendation that high-risk sports like football be moved to the spring.
So, after months of outdoor workouts, peaceful protests and hoping for a season, high school football players across the state are left with the question of where to go from here.
For the players and coaches, there still is a glimmer of hope that football will be played in the academic year, as the CIAC backtracked on a previous ruling that football would not be considered an option for the spring, stating Wednesday that it is reopening that discussion. Of course, given the constantly changing outlook on the fall season and how late into the offseason the CIAC went before making a final decision, some coaches and players will see the wait for spring as more months of uncertainty on whether they will be able to play or not.
“For me, based on what I've paid close attention to over the summer, another six months of back and forth is still going to be tough,” Bristol Central head coach Jeff Papazian said. “We'd love to have a spring season here as long as it doesn't affect other spring sports. We're not looking to affect baseball and softball and track and all the others that go ion during spring.”
One of the CIAC’s main points with spring football was that it will only happen if it doesn’t impact the normal spring sports seasons, and with other states already planning for a spring packed with fall and spring sports after delaying the fall season due to covid-19, Connecticut and the CIAC do have ways of making it work.
“There are a bunch of models out there right now,” Papazian said. “Those kids that play spring sports lost a whole year last year, and we don't want to interfere with them. Could they have their season pushed back to the end of June as a one-time thing? In my mind, that's a possibility, but I'm far from the guy making those decisions.”
Papazian doesn’t envy the CIAC and those involved in making these decisions, but as the season is currently canceled two weeks from the scheduled start date with no firm outlook on what’s next, he hopes there will be a stronger push for planning ahead if spring season becomes doable.
“It's still been a frustrating process and I think it's going to continue to be,” Papazian said. “I don't think the CIAC has any real answers right now. Anybody who's been paying attention had to know that not playing in the fall was a possibility if not a probability. For us not to have a backup plan in place is still frustrating to me and the kids and the parents as well.”
One potential backup plan is the idea of club teams, which have already begun formulating in Fairfield County. Local health departments would have to approve such leagues, but a similar situation unfolded in the summer when American Legion removed its sponsorship for 2020, and the Connecticut Elite Baseball Association was born, putting together a successful season. Football will likely be tougher to put together, especially under the last-minute timeframe it would likely have to operate, but local coaches wouldn’t be surprised if such leagues are given a try, especially after the CIAC said that any player who participates in a hypothetical club football season would still be eligible for a potential spring season.
Still, club football would have its drawbacks.
“The unfortunate part is they very well might get them off the ground, but kids will be excluded because there will be costs associated with it,” Papazian said. “We're talking about leagues paying for insurance, field rentals, officials, there's a lot that goes into it. Equipment too. Unfortunately. kids that don't have the means will be excluded from something like that. That's the beauty of high school sports. Everyone in their community has the opportunity to participate, regardless of where you come from.”
For now, players and coaches will have to wait and see what opportunities arise. Another few months of uncertainty is far from ideal, but if it leaves hope for football, they’ll endure it.
“In fairness to [the CIAC], this is uncharted territory for everyone,” Papazian said. “Nobody has dealt with how a pandemic affects high school football. We'll go on the ride because we want a chance to play if the metrics support it.”