MORRISON: The Case for High School Football Amidst COVID-19

Statistics regarding the Coronavirus used in the following article come from the Tennessee Department of Health, The New York Times, and Wikipedia. Population statistics come from Wikipedia as well. We want you to know what sources we use so you can use them too and keep us in check. Statistics were collected on July 16, 2020.

The hearts and hopes of high school football players, coaches, and fans for a season this fall took a turn for the worse on June 29 as Governor Bill Lee handed down an executive order that put the prep gridiron on life support.

The TSSAA has hashed out plan after plan trying to find a solution. And at the point that a decision was to be made, the decision was to delay that decision. Perhaps it was an effort to put off what they think might be inevitable: cancelling high school football for 2020. Maybe the organization wanted to give the Coronavirus more time to settle down and flatten its curve that has since started to rise again.

Anyway you slice it, the TSSAA is in panic mode. Its most lucrative sport is at the mercy of a disease that wiped out all professional and college sports in a 24-hour period. (Trust me. I was sitting in a screening room at ESPN watching as an NBA star with a positive test result singlehandedly brought the sports world to a halt as we know it). I understand the hardship and the pain that goes into making a decision that could be devastating to anybody with any ties to high school football in the state of Tennessee. But at the end of the day, there needs to be decisiveness.

Across the state I’ve seen article after article calling for a decision to be made, but the decision that many want made is to shut down high school football now. I beg to differ.

There is, even if many choose not to see it, a clear case to be made as to why and how high school football should be present on our schedules in 2020.

The Small School Factor

The schools with the most to lose from a cancelled football season are the smaller schools, especially in rural areas.

Much of this has to do with the economy of these small towns. A high school football season with 5-plus home games (depending on how team record and how far they go into the playoffs) can make or break a lot of local businesses–businesses that have probably already been struggling financially from the Coronavirus.

And the smaller communities have not significantly contributed to the number of cases and/or deaths caused by the Coronavirus. In fact, the five most populous counties in the State of Tennessee account for just under 60% of Coronavirus cases. And before you say that’s proportionate, those same five counties account for only 38% of Tennessee’s population.

The smaller counties and rural areas are not the cause of a spike in cases. That is another matter entirely, but as it relates to football, the smaller schools that rely on football–not only to bring their community together but to pay the bill for athletic and sometimes academic programs–will suffer for statistics that they weren’t a significant part of creating.

At the end of the day, the argument against having high school football will always side with statistics, but when you take a closer look at the statistics, there is a reason to believe that smaller communities are not significantly to blame for any rise in numbers. Yet these communities will be hit the hardest by a lack of football: in morale, in dollar signs, and in athlete exposure.

The Potential Aftermath

The fallout from a cancelled football season could be catastrophic on many fronts for coaches, student -athletes, and high school football in general.

Trying to avoid the potential effects can sometimes be a bigger uphill battle than just trying to assess the current situation. The Coronavirus has already changed the daily high school football activities across the state with temperature checks, limited contact, and much more. The prospective results of a cancelled season could potentially change the prep gridiron as we know it forever.

“I’m all for the health and safety of our kids,” East Hamilton second year head coach Grant Reynolds said. “But it would be devastating for us to not have a football season. Not just for us but for the whole state.”

It would be devastating for us to not have a football season. Not just for us but the whole state.

Grant Reynolds

The impact on the student athletes in particular is a huge worry for many coaches including Reynolds.

“I’ll be honest…a lot of kids are just in school, football keeps them focused and keeps them going,” Reynolds explained. “That part of it would just be devastating.”

The reality of many student-athletes at the high school level is that athletics keep them engaged in school, even if only as a necessity to be able to play their sport. Many are confined to the school zones in districts that they reside in, so football may be the only thing keeping them in the building and working on a diploma.

For another group of student-athletes that have ability to move to another school on a whim, the cancellation of the Tennessee prep football season presents another problem entirely.

“You’re gonna have kids and coaches leaving the state,” Reynolds remarked. “We’re bordered by Alabama and Georgia, so you’re gonna have kids and coaches looking for jobs and places to play. It’ll ruin high school football in Tennessee, probably for a couple of years.”

The proposition of players leaving and heading for other states where football is being played this fall would be eerie to a lot of fans around the Chattanooga area and around the state as Tennessee has the most borders of any state in the union.

The scariest part of the situation might just be the coaches looking for a paycheck and then staying where they end up (Alabama and Georgia especially in the Chattanooga area. But that could be mild compared to the potential of the feeder teams of many high school football programs.

“The big thing I’m really keeping my eye on is middle school programs and what they’re gonna do in our county,” Reynolds added. “If they don’t allow middle schools to play in Hamilton County, then we’re probably going to lose those kids, too. The long term effects of [cancelling the season] are going to be far reaching.”

This is not just a decision that will affect 2020, but it could alter the momentum that Tennessee high school football has gained over the past 10 years in recruits, coaching, and exposure.

East Hamilton head coach Grant Reynolds talks to his team in a huddle during a spring scrimmage game on May 15, 2019. Photo: File Photo/Chandler Morrison

(Lack of) Cases for the Youth

Early in the Coronavirus era, a lot of reports came out that it would most affect those in the 65+ age bracket, infants, and those in high risk categories (underlying conditions). I am not a doctor by any means, and I don’t purport to be one. I am simply someone who has dug into the statistics that are readily available.

That being said, when I comb over the statistics provided by the Tennessee Department of Health, the age bracket from 11-20 where all prep athletes would fall under, only account for 11% of cases and most importantly a goose egg in the death category. In fact, only 9% of deaths related to the Coronavirus have come from anyone under the age of 51 with no deaths from anyone under the age of 20.

There is something to be said about the fact that the players aren’t the only ones to worry about come Friday nights. Plenty of coaches fall into the above 50 category as do a lot of fans. Coaches can keep their distance for the most part during a game, although most probably would not be able to will themselves to do so because coaching is such a personable profession.

Running the Spread

Fans have the ability, at most venues, to spread out and group together as families. Many schools, although they might not want to, could be held to a limit on the number of people allowed in the stands similar to how retail stores are allowed so many people per square footage of retail space. It’s not a perfect scenario as many prep football stadiums are sold out during homes games (at least the schools that have huge fan bases), but it is a solution that allows for high school football to continue.

“[Hamilton] County has already experimented with that…with the graduations we had in early June,” Reynolds expounded. “Our school did a great job with keeping people apart, limiting tickets to 6 or 8 per family. It can be done. You can spread people out in the stadium. I don’t think that allowing fans in here is going to be an issue.”

Limits on attendance also allow for more media outlets to cover games. It may not be at the top of the list for fans, but media exposure is huge to many coaches, players, and parents. Radio stations and online streams could potentially allow for more advertising which could help local businesses in the process through indirect avenues.

Again, figuring out how to keep coaches safe would be a priority as many fall into old age brackets, but even those coaches would probably do anything to see high school football on Friday nights.

“I know the players won’t [have to wear masks on Friday nights],” Reynolds explained. “I’m not so sure about the coaches. It’s a county decision. Right now, they’ve left it up to Hamilton County to decide on campus: do you have to wear a mask or do you not? That’s one of the exceptions to the rule that the mayor put out.”

I know players won’t have to wear masks on Friday nights. I’m not so sure about the coaches.

Grant Reynolds, East Hamilton Head Coach

The Testing Conundrum

What many professional and college sports have going for them currently is that they have the ability to consistently test across the board. These organizations are able to keep a bubble wrapped around the players, coaches, and personnel required to have a season in the first place. There’s a lot of money and resources available to these organizations to allow for proper testing.

Seeing as the resources would be limited for the TSSAA and member schools already, this may seem like an emphatic nail in the coffin to any argument affirming having a football season. On the contrary, it actually indirectly is the sole argument for why the TSSAA should have a football season: an investment for a return.

High School football and the TSSAA would likely have to help financially to allow for proper testing of athletes, especially pertaining to football. Many private and larger schools would likely be able to handle testing or at least the financial strain of adequate testing. Smaller schools might need the assistance of additional community support and/or TSSAA help in that regard.

This financial strain actually could be seen as an investment on having a football season. If the TSSAA wants the potential revenue it normally receives from football, it may have to take the risk to fund some or all Coronavirus testing.

If the season goes off with little to no incident (at least with corona virus cases), the payoff might not be what the TSSAA is used to getting from football, but it could prevent them from being too far in the red when the Coronavirus is gone and not an immediate part of everyone’s life. If the season has issues and cases spike, the TSSAA can always pull the plug when and if it gets to that point–knowing that they gave their best shot at a season with the safety of the players in mind.

Bledsoe County wide receivers and quarterbacks line up for a pass drill during a summer practice. Photo: File Photo/Hunter White

The Real Conversation

This brings us to the apex of the conversation concerning high school football and the Coronavirus: where the TSSAA’s priorities lie. If money and/or the loss of money this coming season is the main concern, then the safety of the players is simply a hurdle and not a concern for the TSSAA. If the TSSAA is truly concerned about the players and their well-being, the money will become the hurdle they have to overcome.

If money and/or the loss of money this coming season is the main concern, then the safety of the players is simply a hurdle and not a concern for the TSSAA.

When the TSSAA finally makes a decision regarding the reality of a football season, the fans, coaches, and players will finally know what the TSSAA is really concerned about. Finances are important and without them, an organization fall apart at the seams, but if the players and student athletes are really a priority for the TSSAA, then the decision made should be to have a football season.

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