The fall high school sports picture came into focus on Friday as Gov. Gina Raimondo and the Rhode Island Interscholastic League set forth their plans for a season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Soccer and field hockey are in, given the green light – with modifications – alongside cross country, tennis and cheerleading, the sports that had previously been penciled in. Football, girls volleyball and unified volleyball are out for fall, with the league planning to implement its four-season plan that would potentially allow those sports to be played in early spring.
Practices will begin Sept. 21, with games slated to get underway Oct. 2. Schools doing distance learning will be permitted to participate in athletics.
“Our goal has never changed. We're in this business to provide opportunities to kids,” said RIIL Executive Director Mike Lunney. “They've been dealt a really bad hand. We're trying to react to it and do the best we can with it. I wish we could make an announcement that this is going to be a completely normal year after what we went through last spring, but that's just not the reality that we're living in.”
School-based sports haven't been played in Rhode Island since March 12. The next day, the remainder of the hockey playoffs and the state basketball tournaments were canceled. Spring sports were called off in April.
Last month, the league unveiled a framework for sports that included the four-season model and would be contingent on state regulations. Under the regulations in place at that time, only cross country, girls tennis and gameday cheer would have been allowed. Gov. Raimondo announced the addition of soccer and field hockey to that lineup in her Friday press conference. Modifications to those sports will be nailed down in the coming weeks. Lunney said cross country and tennis will also have modifications in place. The goal is to minimize how modifications will impact a given sport's game play. Raimondo said restrictions on soccer throw-ins are the kind of restrictions to expect.
“We're reviewing what's going on around us, what's happening around the country, what's happening in our state,” Lunney said. “We're hoping that we're going to start our meetings with the Department of Health next week. I can't put a date on it at this point, but we're aware of the calendar and what we're up against so we're going to try to get those done as soon as possible.”
Football's status as a contact sport made it an iffy proposition in the eyes of Gov. Raimondo and the Rhode Island Department of Health. Lunney said football was part of the proposal the RIIL submitted to the state but that it was not approved.
“Football and volleyball will not be allowed this fall,” Raimondo said. “I know that's a bummer and I'm sorry for that. “Volleyball is played indoors and all the players touch the same ball so we don't feel right now it is safe for us to have competitive high school volleyball. Football obviously requires very close contact through blocking and tackling. I understand that's a great disappointment to a lot of kids out there. I don't want you to lose hope. What we are hoping, expecting and planning for is a season in the spring.”
The third season would be held between winter and the usual spring campaign. While some states like New Hampshire are playing football, many in the Northeast are not. Connecticut recently announced that it would not play. Vermont is moving to hold no-contact, seven-on-seven football. Lunney said the league felt the spring option was better than switching to seven-on-seven.
“Vermont made that determination because they canceled contact football completely for the year. In the northern part of the region, they have a hard time getting on their fields in the spring,” Lunney said. “They didn't feel like it was going to be in their best interest to try to do football in the spring, so they provided that seven-on-seven opportunity as a replacement to contact football. Our intention is to give every kid the opportunity to play their sport this year so the best option we had was to move it to that season three and see how the school year progresses.”
Distance learning was a factor in the spring sports decision, with the Principals Committee on Athletics saying at the time that if students did not return to school, sports would not be held. That stance has changed, with the model unveiled last month designed to work regardless of whether schools were holding in-person classes. Raimondo and Lunney confirmed that districts not holding in-person classes can participate in sports. Districts will make the ultimate determination.
“Fluid and flexible is the way we're going to be,” Lunney said. “We're going to do everything in our power to work with our schools and give them every opportunity to participate. We're going to get some feedback from them as to where they are. I can tell you, as of today, we have not heard from any school district that they would not be moving forward with sports.”
The RIIL is issuing guidance to schools on spectators that would limit gatherings to 66 percent of a facility's capacity or 250 people, including game participants.
“Those guidelines could change,” Lunney said. “They could become more restrictive or less restrictive. Each school has to weigh how they're going to deal with spectators. In many cases, I know they're looking at options to stream games.”
The fall sports season is expected to include playoffs, assuming restrictions don't change.
Lunney said the league has started discussions about the winter season but that fall is the priority for now. Start dates for the other season will be decided along the way.
“At the center of everything we're trying to do is kids,” Lunney said. “They just want to play. They just want to have opportunities. They want to have a normal high school experience. No one asked for this, but this is the situation we're in and we're doing the best we can.”