CHESHIRE — The decision, at long last, is final. There will be no traditional 11-on-11 CIAC high school football for the 2020 fall season.
On Wednesday, the CIAC Board of Control reaffirmed the decision it originally made on Sept. 4, falling in line with the position of the Connecticut Department of Public Health that tackle football is a high-risk sport and should not be played this fall.
In speaking with sports organizations in other states, the CIAC felt it needed to be in agreement with the governor and state health agencies in order to move forward with fall sports.
“There was no further avenue that CIAC felt that we could pursue to have our mitigating strategies meet the standard to recategorize football in the moderate-risk category,” said CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini on a Zoom call with state media Wednesday afternoon.
That made football Connecticut’s first coronavirus sports casualty of the 2020-21 school year. All other fall sports, at this point, are proceeding to an abbreviated season in October, including girls volleyball, a high-risk activity that has been mitigated by players wearing masks.
For the football community, Wednesday’s accouncement did have a silver lining. While closing the door on the fall season, the CIAC put the option of playing football later in the school year on the table.
This is a reversal. In August, after the CIAC Football Committee voted 9-1 in favor of a spring season, the Board of Control rejected the recommendation, ruling it would not move a canceled sport to a different season.
On Wednesday, the Board of Control declared it will now consider allowing competition at a later time for any sport that “cannot hold its regularly scheduled season, such as football, provided it does not negatively impact spring sports.”
Postponing football to late winter/early spring is a tack that’s been taken in 20 other states, including neighboring New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
The CIAC, in deciding whether to move a sport to a later season, will take into consideration factors such as how the change will impact other sports and whether fields are available and playable.
Then there’s the health picture. Will COVID-19 case numbers be better later in the school year? Will new strategies to reduce risk, backed by better research, be available? Will a vaccine be available?
By putting the spring football option back on the table, the CIAC has at least bought time for some answers to those questions to emerge.
“We don’t think right now that there is enough information available to definitely say that there will another time of year that will be better, but we have laid out some of the criteria that we’re looking for to identify a time of the year that may be better that doesn’t impact the sports that were negatively impacted last year to provide them that opportunity to be able to play,” Lungarini elaborated.
When the coronavirus pandemic exploded in mid-March, the CIAC was the first state scholastic agency in the country to cancel what remained of its winter postseason. By the end of that same week, Connecticut schools were closed for what proved to be the rest of the 2019-20 school year.
As a result, spring sports were never played.
Many of those spring sports, though, did enjoy summer seasons through AAU, club or travel programs that were given the green light as part of Phase 2 of the state re-opening plan.
Over the past month, throughout the wrangling with the DPH, football coaches and CIAC officials repeatedly pointed to a double standard. Other sports, including some considered high risk, were allowed to play in the summer outside the high school structure, while CIAC football, which has no AAU or travel option at the high school level, was being told “no go.’”
This touches upon a wrinkle to the story that is likely to remain in the headlines. With CIAC football being cancelled, there is a concern that private or independent football leagues will spring up in towns where local public healthy agencies are OK with tackle football being played.
Like most club and travel programs in other sports, these leagues would probably be pay-to-play. The CIAC believes there is inequity in that. The CIAC is also concerned those leagues won’t follow state guidelines to combat COVID-19.
“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,” the CIAC stated Wednesday.
The CIAC did say that any player who suits up in such a league will still be eligible to play CIAC football if it is moved to next year.
In the meantime, by the end this week, the CIAC plans to recommend alternative football activities for the fall, such as 7-on-7 games, combines, linemen challenges and weight-lifting contests. These are activities the DPH had been recommending because they are considered low or moderate risk.
7-on-7 football, which is being played this fall in Vermont, is the non-contact version seen in summer passing leagues. Most Connecticut programs participate in those leagues. Most programs, however, do not view 7-on-7 as a substitute for 11-on-11 because linemen aren’t included.
Some teams, though, have said they would play 7-on-7 this fall as a means of preparing for a season pushed to late winter or early spring.
Players and coaches have been vocal as the dispute between the CIAC and DPH dragged on through August into September. They were caught in the middle as the CIAC, citing Connecticut’s low COVID-19 case numbers, maintained fall was the time to play football and the DPH held firm to its position that tackle football was too high risk to play now, especially as the state’s case numbers started to tick upward with the reopening of schools.
Last Friday, in what can now be seen as a last-ditch meeting set up by Gov. Ned Lamont, the CIAC presented DPH with ideas on how to lower risk of playing football this fall, such as having players wear plastic face shields or face coverings. DPH stuck by its recommendation that tackle football be moved to next year or when more medical information or studies are made available on the ideas the CIAC pitched.
At the same time, Gov. Lamont and the DPH left the decision to play or not to play up to the CIAC. The CIAC ultimately reasoned it could not ask the superintendents of its member schools to go against state recommendations.
Through it all, football players mobilized for their cause, including at a rally last Wednesday at the State Capitol that was organized by players and attended by more than 1,000 people.
With this Wednesday’s decision, the uncertainty that haunted teams each day has they headed out to the practice field at least ended. Now hopes can be pinned on spring.
“I think there has been a ping-pong effect going back and forth and it had to end. The kids, coaches, and athletic directors needed a plan that they could prepare for,” said Cheshire Athletic Director Steve Trifone. “If sports can be moved safely, we’d like to see them be played this year.”