For the past two months, high school football players and coaches across the state have been put through the spin cycle of unknown, caught in a dizzying flurry of new outlooks and decisions for a potential 2020 season, one that was eventually canceled on Wednesday after the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s latest meeting.
But with that reaffirmed decision, which came as a result of the Department of Public Health holding firm on its recommendation to delay high-risk sports until the spring, comes more unknowns as for what, if any, football activities will be available to the student-athletes who just lost their season as they know it.
For now, Connecticut teams are operating in a similar fashion to how they were before Wednesday’s announcement: practicing and conditioning in small cohorts to prepare for a season that they don’t know when, or if, will happen. With the CIAC reversing its decision to rule out football in the spring, the door is still open for a season this academic year, but with so much to figure out between now and then, coaches and players are carrying the same uncertainty they have had for the past six weeks.
“We look forward to getting out there every day and feeling as much normal as possible,” Shea said. “What are we preparing for, I don't really know. But [practicing is] helpful. Once we get direction, we'll go from there. Again, as football people, we just want to know where and we'll do everything else.”
Shea’s Blue Devils, and many other teams across the state, are feeling a more unfortunate norm this week, practicing for a season that is filled with questions. Sure, understandable questions given a global pandemic that nobody has had to deal with before, but the season’s cancellation with the spring option put back on the table only means that football will likely be put through more waiting through the winter as the CIAC waits to see how and if the state’s covid-19 metrics change in the coming months, and if a football season will be possible in five months.
“We've been saying all along to make a decision and give us a plan, and a decision was not made,” Shea said. “I'm sure I speak for everybody that we're still trying to wrap our heads around all of this. Even the athletic directors are too. I know I speak with mine a lot, and we're just trying to put our best foot forward and see what we can do next. This has been rough on everybody, even the parents. People involved in any football program are really feeling it right now.”
Shea’s team arrived at Thursday’s practice with questions regarding what’s next, and if club football would be available for the fall. With high school football shut down for the fall, alternative leagues will almost certainly try and get off the ground, but with such little time to organize such a league, there’s only so many answers for the student-athletes who just lost their 2020 season.
“I told the kids that the answers they want and the answers I need, I don't have yet,” Shea said. “Over the next couple of days I like to think I'll have them. I'm trying to see if it's feasible right now, and the other option of AAU and private leagues, I have to see what's realistic and what can really be done here. I don't know if a lot of this can be pulled off so quickly. There's also a lot of questions I need answers to. There's a lot to digest.”
One of the main questions for Shea, and other coaches, is how club leagues are seen as an option while football under the high school format was seen as too much of a risk. This discrepancy was brought up in the CIAC’s latest statement confirming the cancellation of the football season.
“The CIAC is concerned that DPH’s recommendation to postpone higher risk sports to a later time is reserved for CIAC sanctioned interscholastic athletics,” the CIAC’s statement read. “In fact, as the CIAC is not sanctioning a football season at this time, schools, with approval from their local DPH, may opt to play full contact football as a “club” sport, similar to girls ice hockey, without adherence to CIAC COVID mitigating plans. The CIAC has previously tried to make DPH and the governor’s office aware of the inconsistency that permits our same student population to engage in non-interscholastic high-risk sports with less oversight and fewer COVID mitigating strategies.”
Coaches had a similar reaction to DPH’s firm stance on high school football.
“Personally, I'd love to know what gets us a green light,” Bristol Central head coach Jeff Papazian said. “What are we looking at and what has to happen for us to be able to go? If that could be put out, it might ease some of the tensions. But I'm a teacher and a football coach, I'm not a doctor by any stretch.”
Coaches and players have been searching for answers and a decision that could offer direction, but Wednesday’s decision appears to have only caused more questions. As club and AAU leagues begin to pop up, it will likely only cause more frustration for the high school teams that were ready to start the season, but will now watch other leagues begin action.
“That's what's confusing to me, and also frustrating,” Shea said. “We're trying to follow the rules with cohorts and the protocols we've been following since July, while all of these other things are going on. The kids and the parents see that, and they're asking, 'Why can't we?' And I can only look at them and say, 'I don't know.' It's very frustrating. All of these other things are going on, and I get the Department of Health is doing their job, but what is really getting neglected here are these high school kids' states of mind. They've got a lot going on right now and being told yes and then no, but now being told no when everyone else is doing this. All of these other high-risk sports are being played. Why can't we?”