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'Mixed emotions': MHSAA OKs football while state warns against contact sports

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Michigan high schools were granted permission on Thursday to resume football activities as early as next week, but at the same time, parents were advised by the state's top doctor against allowing their children to participate in contact sports. 

The fall football season was reinstated by the Michigan High School Athletic Association on Thursday after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order 176 lifted restrictions. Padded practices in football can begin on Tuesday, with the first games taking place on Sept. 18.

Jermain Crowell

Other fall sports that can begin are volleyball, boys soccer and girls swimming. Boys soccer matches can begin immediately, girls swimming can begin on Monday and volleyball matches can start on Wednesday.

But in a press release announcing the lifting of Whitmer's order and the reopening of gyms and pools in Michigan, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, warned against athletes playing contact sports.

More: Whitmer: Indoor and outdoor sports allowed; Michigan gyms can reopen

“Individuals can now choose whether or not to play organized sports, and if they do choose to play, this order requires strict safety measures to reduce risk,” Khaldun said.

“However, we know of 30 reported outbreaks involving athletic teams and facilities in August. Based on current data, contact sports create a high risk of COVID-19 transmission and MDHHS strongly recommends against participating in them at this time. We are not out of the woods yet. COVID-19 is still a very real threat to our families.” 

The continued research into myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart, among Big Ten players who have been infected with the virus should serve as a warning to those considering high school sports, said Stephen Hawes, professor and chairman at the University of Washington's Department of Epidemiology.

“I think it’s prudent to be cautious,” Hawes said. “We just don’t have the data to eliminate the possibility of risk to people long-term.”

Even in professional sports, where leagues have been able to keep players segregated from the general population, provide frequent tests and ensure quarantine for those infected, cases have cropped up and high school athletes are provided nowhere near the same accommodations, Hawes said.

While young people might experience weaker symptoms, the risk of infecting their communities also must be considered, he said.

“You need to look beyond the safety of the athletes themselves to the potential for outbreaks caused by them interacting with each other,” Hawes said.

The holistic health of all people through sports and social interaction is important, Hawes said, but continued activities allowing for as much have contributed in part to the country's challenges in controlling the virus’ spread.

“That’s why we have the most cases in the entire world,” he said.

Belleville football coach Jermain Crowell, whose team is ranked No. 1 in the state by The Detroit News, said he had “mixed emotions” about learning that football was reinstated.

“I don’t know how to feel right now,” Crowell told The News. “You know we were ready to go, and then it was over, and then you try to get used to the new reality that you’re not playing until March. Then, we heard something yesterday there might be something and then there wasn’t, and now it’s like, ‘Is this real this time? I just shut the kids down for two weeks.

“There’s a lot to do. I know all my seniors are all over the place. Games are starting on the 18th. We have to be ready to play. This is our best team.”

The first games of the six-game regular season will begin with Week 4 schedules on Sept. 18, leading up to the playoffs with all teams participating. Teams will advance through their usual postseason progression with the state finals the weekend of Dec. 4-5.

Championship events in the other fall sports will take place as originally scheduled.

John Dignan, former Michigan State linebacker (1990-91) and Eastern Michigan assistant coach, is now superintendent at Wayne Memorial and Westland John Glenn schools. He too has mixed emotions on the news.

“It’s like a Catch 22 because some districts it’s not safe enough and they’re going virtual, so it creates a lot of confusion for families,” Dignan said. “We’re going to probably follow the MHSAA; that’s what we’ve been doing so far.

“I realize that schools and districts join the (MHSAA) so they can play state tournaments, but we look at it as guidance for athletic programs and I think that schools that pull out of that make it harder on themselves.

“I don’t think there’s a wrong or right answer in the present environment. Things change so rapidly. You’re going to always have people on the other side of things unhappy with whatever is decided.

“There’s so many layers, just so much complexity to all of this. You make a decision and the next thing you know you have five or 10 other ones that you have to make. At the end of the day the No. 1 thing is the safety and well being of our children. It’s a very difficult, uncharted time for athletics, education, really everything.”

Raheem Anderson

Detroit Cass Tech four-star offensive lineman Raheem Anderson, a Michigan commit, said he was “ecstatic” when he heard there would be a fall football season.

“We were working so hard and so it was a great feeling to hear the decision,” said Anderson, who is among six Cass Tech players expected to graduate early and play college football starting in January. “It’s just a blessing and an opportunity for my team to have a chance to win the state championship.”

Anderson said he’s not worried about the season starting so soon.

“I’ve been lifting and working out, basically been doing the same things, just not with my team,” he said. “I think we’ll be ready, especially if everybody is doing what they’re supposed to do. I don’t project that we’ll be perfect, but we’ll be ready to go.”

Clarkston coach Kurt Richardson, who has guided the Wolves to three state championships (2013, ’14, ’17), said he has already warned his players to continue with social distancing over the Labor Day weekend in preparation for the season.

“No way did I think we’d be playing this fall, but it’s awesome, great,” Richardson said. “We’ve contacted all the kids and told them they have to be smart this weekend and not do dumb stuff. The message going forward is that this thing could end as quickly as we got it back.”

Rocco Spindler

Richardson’s top players are two-way lineman Rocco Spindler (Notre Dame) and offensive tackle Garrett Dellinger (LSU), who will also get the opportunity to play before starting their college careers in January.

“I’m really pumped up, still a little scared,” Spindler said. “Hopefully they don’t cancel it two weeks into the season, but I’m excited to get back at it with the guys, ready to go down in history for being one of the best Clarkston teams.”

Clarkston will be ranked No. 4 in The News’ preseason rankings and is scheduled to take on No. 6 Oak Park on Sept. 18.

Before Thursday's announcement, only schools in Regions 6 and 8 (Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula) were permitted to play volleyball, soccer and swimming. Schools in Regions 1-5 and 7, in the southern Lower Peninsula, were on hold for competition in those sports.

The other fall sports in Michigan — boys tennis, girls golf and cross country — have been competing without restrictions due to the distancing inherent in those competitions.

The decision to play sports will be determined by each individual school district. Schools may elect to stage fall sports competitions in the spring, but the MHSAA will conduct postseason championship events for fall sports only in 2020.

Spectators are limited to two per participant in all sports.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.