Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips said his thought process on how to handle playing high-risk sports has always been: “We’ll never know until we try.”
“We can’t keep being afraid,” Phillips said last week. “At some point, we have to go out and try it. If things go bad, that’s when we cancel it. I feel like we should be out there playing basketball, wrestling and all these sports with all our kids.”
Following New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s late meeting January 22, what was once a dream has now become a reality.
“Effective February 1, 2021, participants in higher-risk sports and recreation activities may partake in individual or distanced group training and organized no/low-contact group training, and, further, may partake in other types of play, including competitions and tournaments, only as permitted by the respective local health authorities,” the New York State Department of Health’s Friday addition to the interim guidance for sports and recreation during the COVID-19 public health emergency reads.
The Suffolk County Department of Health Services gave the green light Monday, January 25, during a press conference at Blydenburgh County Park.
Section XI Executive Director Tom Combs, who was with County Executive Steve Bellone and others in Smithtown earlier this week, said his governing body of athletics is also ready to go.
“We are ecstatic for the opportunity to allow our student-athletes competing in high-risk sports an opportunity to play a modified schedule this winter season,” he said, “and for the high-risk sports in the seasons to come.”
Basketball, football, wrestling, hockey, competitive cheerleading, boys and girls volleyball and boys lacrosse were some of the sports deemed high-risk by the state. The group New Yorkers for Student Athletes, introducing the popularized “Let Them Play” slogan, had been pushing for local and state officials to support student-athletes since sports were canceled in the spring. The group kept saying there was strength in numbers.
“I empathize with them,” Phillips said. “Especially if your kid is a senior and they play a sport that hasn’t been approved, it’s awful.”
Neighboring states, and, in fact, nearly every state minus New York and Illinois, had already been currently allowing kids to play basketball. All sports had also resumed competition at most colleges and the professional level amid the pandemic.
This is why many local officials in the state Assembly and Senate in recent weeks had been drafting legislation to open the door for these canceled sports to resume.
“The core of the matter is whether or not there should be a procedure in place to play high school sports. Currently there is none,” Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said prior to the state’s announcement. “Schools have proven to be one of the safest spaces during the recent surge in cases. School closures have been necessary more because of what happens outside schools in the community than within the school. Further, it is a bit of a double standard that pro and college sports have been permitted in the state, but not for high schools.”
He said Hudson Valley Assemblyman Colin Schmitt was circulating the bill that, while never formally introduced, Thiele backed, and authorized practice and play of all interscholastic sports which have been postponed or canceled due to COVID-19, as well as provided necessary safeguards to protect public health.
East Hampton Athletic Director Joe Vasile-Cozzo said he has continued to stress the statistics to support allowing kids to play.
“The data shows that schools are safe and not super spreaders. The data also has shown that sports are not super spreaders,” Vasile-Cozzo said. “With all the guidelines and safety precautions that are in place, I feel we could offer sports in a safe environment. Our kids need to be out there participating.”
“Everybody keeps saying look at the signs and look at the data, except when it comes to high-risk sports,” Phillips added. “The overwhelming majority of athletic directors within Section XI are all in favor of getting these kids out and playing.”
But some local school officials don’t see it that way.
“The New York State Public High School Athletic Association classified these sports as high-risk for a reason,” Sag Harbor Superintendent Jeff Nichols said during Monday night’s Board of Education meeting. “It carries an increased risk of transmission due to the nature of the sport.”
He, before stating that the district would choose to opt-out of allowing students to play high-risk sports, said the protections outlined in the plan, for the most part, are already in place, saying schools have students fill out questionnaires, keep logs and take temperatures.
“The only additional element is the testing requirement, and I think it’s important to note that the test is an antigen test, and the data on it suggest that it’s really not that valuable for schools to effectively combat the virus.”
Nichols said of 64 percent of people who have displayed COVID-19 symptoms and have a positive PCR test turned out positive antigen results. In situations where someone had a positive PCR test and they were not showing symptoms, only 36 percent of those cases were picked up.
“It’s sort of a myth, from my perspective, that these tests are a reasonable guarantee that we’re going to be preventing transmission of the virus,” the superintendent said. “It’s a false sense of security. We as a school district have an obligation to look out for the well-being of our students but also our faculty and staff. We’re increasing the likelihood of our teachers, our teaching assistants, our substitute teachers, our custodians are going to be exposed to the virus, and as the superintendent of schools, I’ve taken a pretty measured approach throughout, and have tried to reference the science to justify a recommendation.”
Many of the board members sided with him and his stance to not opt-in to allowing student-athletes to participate in high-risk sports at this time.
Board member Chris Tice didn’t understand not mandating masks be worn throughout the entire game, even when in play.
“You’re going to have student-athletes in very, very close proximity — sweating, mouth opened, yelling,” Tice said. “I’m afraid of the impact this could have on the students and the entire school population. We’re creating an enormous amount of risk.”
She said studies have shown up to 90 percent of kids between 13 and 21 who have the novel coronavirus are asymptomatic.
“I would like to be given the challenge to give these juniors and seniors, at the very least, an opportunity to participate in something that is a critical component of their lives,” Pierson Athletic Director Eric Bramoff said. “However, I also think that is my one, singular opinion, and I will back the administration and the Board of Education in the decisions that are made. I would, and we would, follow the rules … but, at the end of the day, I don’t know if those rules will make a difference.”
Westhampton Beach Athletic Director Kathy Masterson called the state and county announcements a “step in the right direction,” adding that she believes schools will be able to conduct seasons as safely as possible.
“I would do anything in my power to have my kids be able to play,” she said, adding that no-spectator rules county athletic directors agreed on, though not a state mandate, are a small and worthy sacrifice to make if it gets the basketball players and wrestlers under her roof back in action. She also pointed out that a lot of work has been done to ensure safety.
“Section XI has set up an incredible task force on return to play that has been set up for every sport,” she said. “We all know the risks, but it’s just about giving us a shot. I want to see my kids back on the court, back on the field, back on the mat, jumping over things and hitting baseballs. That’s all I want to see.”
Hampton Bays Athletic Director Drew Walker felt similarly.
“We support our student-athletes and will abide by all laws and regulations with regard to health and safety, as required by Governor Cuomo, the New York State Department of Health and the New York State Education Department,” he said.
Southampton boys basketball coach and Village Police Chief Herm Lamison said he tried to be patient, believing this day would come.
“The kids are hungry to play and for some type of normalcy,” he said. “I just pray that it can be done without anyone being affected negatively.”
This resumption of play will be big for students’ mental health, Phillips said, and restores the chances for many to play at the college level and beyond.
“The kids want and need something to look forward to,” the athletic director said. “People are social creatures. This will allow them to be back on the field with their teammates and their coaches who are part of a big support system. School has open, but it’s not really fun; there’s nothing to get excited about. Sports is such a big part of so many kid’s lives and brings some sense of normalcy back to their school experience. It’s time. It’s been time.”