High School Sports

A Season On The Brink? The Road To The Decision On Fall Sports

AJ Barber hopes to be back on the field for Greenwich this fall. (Mark Conrad)

When word came down yesterday that the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference football committee had recommended moving the season from fall to spring, social media suddenly blew up. Football, during a pandemic, even in this small state, apparently is an inalienable right.

Petitions have been started and lawsuits threatened if the state does not go through with its plan revealed last week for a maximum eight-game schedule due to the coronavirus.

And, if as expected, football does end up becoming a spring sport for a year, who exactly will be the subject of the suits? My guess is over 80 percent of the public would go to the CIAC site and look over the staff directory.

And they would be wrong. There is an entire process that started with putting together the fall sports plan, which calls for games to begin Sept. 24. The ultimate fate of the season will be decided tomorrow afternoon by the CIAC Board of Control, a group of 19 school principals and vice principals, which can follow recommendations or go its own course in what is deemed to be in the best interest of all those affected by high school athletics.

CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini does not get a vote — with the final decision or elsewhere in the process.

With so much misinformation flying around, I thought it would be helpful to take readers through the entire operation. My guide is Lungarini, who I spoke with this afternoon for nearly 40 minutes.

Before beginning, and adding a few bullet points, a few personal opinions. First, Lungarini has been completely transparent and accessible since winter sports were shut down five months ago. He hasn’t shied away from any questions.

Second, Lungarini wants sports to be played almost as much as the athletes, coaches and parents. All his decisions have been predicated on safety first and then giving kids the best experience possible. Look no further than the parameters for the schedule that was released. It would give football teams 80 percent of a regular season and those in other sports 60 percent.

So how did we get from those guidelines to tomorrow’s decision? Here are the steps.

Setting A Fall Plan

“We formed a subcommittee that was the CIAC Fall Sports Committee, and in that committee there were about 35 members,” Lungarini said. It was comprised of principals, superintendents, athletic directors, coaches, members from the state medical society, athletic trainers and league commissioners.

“What that group did was they put together the recommendation for the fall sports plan,” Lungarini said. “That was approved by the Board of Control on July 30 as the official fall sports plan.”

Under it, football conditioning would start Monday, other sports 10 days later and there would be a season with possible playoffs running from Sept. 24-Nov. 15.

Creating Schedules

After release of the plan, the next step was to move away from league play and look at regional groupings to make sure every school could fill a schedule. The CIAC staff met with league commissioners and another representative from each league. They developed the sets of schools, which were submitted last Friday.

“Once it was confirmed we could do the regional groupings, then the next step was to go out to our individual sports committees to again look at the feedback we received from the superintendents, principals, coaches and consider for each specific sport if there were any other factors that they felt needed to be discussed or implemented to ensure student safety,” Lungarini said. “The first question asked in all of those meetings was is it safe to play. Player safety has always been the top priority for the CIAC.”

Final schedules will still have to be created for all sports that are played this fall.

Gaby Gonzalez is due to be back anchoring the Staples’ girls soccer team’s defense. (Mark Conrad)

Fact-Finding Submitted To Board Of Control

The football committee met yesterday morning. Lungarini would not confirm the result, but Hearst Connecticut’s Sean Patrick Bowley was first to report the committee, by a 9-1 margin, voted to move football to the spring.

“We’ve had a consistent feedback from education leaders, meaning our superintendents and member school principals, and one has been concern about high-contact, high-risk sports moving forward in the fall,” Lungarini said. “A second concern was how fall sports align with the efforts by schools to cohort students and engage students in hybrid learning experiences, in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID. A third concern has been how students on a distance-learning model would be able to access athletics if they were not either in school for any learning or they were at home for a hybrid experience.”

Fan attendance was also discussed. Many of the schools felt that if sports were played it would be appropriate without fans.

The volleyball committee met yesterday and recommended following the plan released last week. The swimming committee also met yesterday.

The field hockey and cross country committees met today and the combined soccer committee meets tomorrow morning.

“If there are recommendations that come out of the committees that change the way a sport is played or change sport rules, change the sports season, those things go to the Board of Control for approval,” Lungarini said.

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Each of the sport committee’s reports will be reviewed as part of the basis for the Board of Control’s final decision.

Here are some points of note from my interview with Lungarini:

— School superintendents ultimately wield overriding power over the Board of Control because they have the final say in their school districts. So if it is voted to play all fall sports and the superintendent in a town or city feels it is unsafe, that school or schools will not participate.

“We’re all trying to do what’s in the best interest for kids,” Lungarini said. “They’re going to do what’s best for their kids and on a statewide level we’re going to try and do what’s best for all kids.”

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— Lungarini said school would have to be held in person or as a hybrid model for the CIAC to consider playing. If the state moved entirely to a distanced-learning model, the fall season, like the end of winter and spring, would be canceled.

If some schools are distanced and others not, Lungarini said the CIAC would look for direction from the state. It would depend on health metrics.

— There are no current plans for the winter and spring seasons, particularly if any fall sports were to get moved to the spring.

“We have to see where we are in November and December as well,” Lungarini said. “And where we are after the first of the year. Hopefully things continue to trend in a positive manner. With a little bit of luck and hope, there’s a vaccine in place by the first of the year and we’re somewhat returning to a sense of normal by the second semester, that would certainly make things a lot easier to put a schedule in place.”

Lungarini said if any fall or winter sports are postponed the CIAC will try and provide every opportunity to get a season in. The board is aware that there are a number of multi-sport athletes and would attempt to make a schedule that limited having to decide between two sports.

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— Because of a late start and early finish, it was decided against moving spring sports to the fall. Lungarini said spring sports teams would likely have lost about half their seasons playing this autumn.

— Since football parents by far have been the most active on social media expressing there displeasure about football getting moved or canceled, I asked Lungarini it there was anything he would like to say to them.

“When you consider bringing sports back in terms of interscholastic athletics, there are elements beyond just the sport that you need to consider,” Lungarini said. “Where we do see a lot of sports being successfully played right now in Connecticut, when you factor in everything that our schools are doing to try and get back on campus for learning, those are elements that the outside teams are not dealing with as well. You’re trying to support schools in getting back on campus and getting kids on campus for learning first and then provide safe opportunities.

“We do think the opportunities we provide through athletics keep our kids safer and more aligned with the cohorting protocols that our schools put together than if we just leave them after school to just play in these youth leagues or club or AAU teams. That being said, when you look at all those parameters, you also want to give kids the best opportunity to play as many games as possible.”

Lungarini noted that if all fall sports are played and there is a COVID breakout, football because it is at the highest risk would be the first to shut down.

The bottom line: if the CIAC feels there is a better chance for a fall sports team to get a more complete season in the spring, that sport will be moved to the spring.

— Ultimately, decisions are being made without a guide.

“You’re trying to predict what is going to happen with COVID numbers and it’s an impossible task,” Lungarini said. “While trying to do what you think is the best opportunity that we can give kids, if we can get them safely to play, let’s get them to play because it’s good for kids. But if we can’t do it safely or if it’s likely that opportunity will get cut so short that you really wouldn’t have much of an experience, then it’s best to try and find a different place to put it.”