As we all stay at home to shelter ourselves against a lethal virus that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the United States, sports fans can’t help but to think of when sports will resume, and when they do, what will it be like post-coronavirus. Certainly, there are many aspects as the health and safety of players and everyone connected with the teams, as well as the fans and support staff are at stake. With spring sports in Arkansas having come to an abrupt end for the 2019-20 school year, time that has been normally spent by fall coaches preparing for the summer and upcoming seasons is now being spent making alternate plans and getting ready to move in several different directions depending on how and when the sports seasons resume.
But like all of us who have seen their lives change forever, coaches’ and school administrators’ roles have changed as well. New considerations will have to be considered to protect the health and safety of their student-athletes, their parents and fans, and, themselves. I touched on this a few weeks ago; some traditional activities such as shaking hands with the opposing team at the end of the game may have to be modified or even eliminated. On a very interesting side note, Arkansas high school teams have made it a tradition to assemble together after the games, immediately on the field or on the court, to recite the Lord’s Prayer together. I hope this tradition continues. It is needed more today than ever.
I wanted to know what recommendations to protect athletes and coaches from the coronavirus were being made for the resumption of school sports, whenever that may be. It will be a question I will ask coaches in our area as soon as it is known when the sports seasons will resume. Surprisingly, there is not a lot out there right now concerning guidance as to how coaches are encouraged or required to protect athletes from coronavirus. I want to believe that is because this is a situation that is evolving daily, and much is still being learned about the virus and its prevention.
After a brief check of the available literature, I did stumble upon a guidance from the State of Rhode Island that listed specific steps for coaches to take to protect the health and safety of their players and all connected to their programs. In a directive from the Rhode Island Department of Health (health.ri.gov), guidelines and best practices have been given to their state’s high school coaches to prevent coronavirus spread among their players. Some of the recommendations include: 1) washing hands often with warm, soapy water, 2) cough and sneeze into the elbow, 3) do not share eating or drinking utensils, such as water bottles, 4) people who are sick or have a fever should stay home until their temperatures are below 100 degrees for at least 24 hours without the assistance of fever-reducing medication, 5) educate athletes on how flu viruses are transmitted, 6) tell athletes to stay at home from practices or games if they feel sick, have a fever, or come to practice feeling sick, 7) coaches should eliminate disciplinary penalties if a player misses practices or games with flu symptoms, 8) do not share mouth guards, 9) do not shake hands after the game; use fist pumps or elbow bumps, and 10) thoroughly clean equipment and sports surfaces frequently.
A key component of these guidelines is that the changes in practice and behaviors listed above must be reinforced by the parents at home. Gone are the days that athletes have to show a certain amount of “toughness” that has been embedded into the culture of the sports. Social distancing guidelines, common sense, and a proper perspective on the role and importance of high school sports goes a long way. And now it is more important than ever. The first priority has to be the protection of the safety of our athletes, coaches, fans, families, and everyone connected to our sports programs.
For parents of high school athletes, there has always been an “acceptable level of risk” that has been in their minds with respect to their children playing sports. Concussions, broken bones, heat-related illness, and even paralysis and rare occasions of death, have been among the risks that parents have taken or, in some cases, have refused their children to take. COVID-19 is a new risk factor that is added to that terrible list that parents will have to consider in the future. This new risk factor will undoubtedly affect all sports until a vaccine is available that will eliminate or greatly reduce the risk of contracting this awful virus. But until that day comes, it will force parents and athletes to make the decision to play or not to play.
My overall concern with all of this is the fear that once life returns to some version of “normal”, the behavioral modifications such as social distancing, hand washing, etc., will be quickly forgotten. Remembering back to the few months and years following the terrorists attacks on September 11, 2001, it was shocking to me to see how many Americans quickly forgot the attacks and lost the deep sense of patriotism that was so fervent in the immediate days of the attack. I hope and pray that our parents, coaches, and players will remember how important it is to continue behavioral modifications that we are all taking now in the coming months when sports resume. Will we be able to avoid the short-term temptations to forget about these modifications, or, will we forget and fall back to the old way of life because it is simply what we want to do at that time? I hope, for the sake of our children, that we as adults do not let our children down and give into a way of life that will put them at risk. And additionally, I hope, that once a vaccine is available and is proven to be safe, that our parents will take the necessary steps to make sure our children and ourselves are properly vaccinated.
But for now, schools and sports programs will have to prepare for what will happen at the start of the next school year, and, the possibility of a recurrence of the virus again next winter. It is a race against the clock to develop new vaccines against COVID-19, but, there is no guarantee that it will be available next school year.
Stay with Resident Press as we continue to cover the effect of the COVID-19 virus on high school sports in Arkansas. But in the meantime, stay home, stay safe, and God bless our country.