Couch: The MHSAA wants high school football this fall, putting it on Whitmer. There's a lot to consider.

Graham Couch
Lansing State Journal
The possibility of scenes like this at Pewamo-Westphalia this fall are still alive. The MHSAA would like to reopen the discussion about high school football this fall.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association wants to reopen the conversation about playing football this fall. They’re putting the possibility squarely in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lap. She does need to speak up this week one way or the other — about high school football, about soccer, about indoor sports, all forbidden under executive order 2020-160. Time is of the essence. A decision in three weeks might as well be a decision in three months. It’s useless to fall sports.

“We’re to the point where ‘soon’ just doesn’t work anymore,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said this weekend.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the MHSAA should reverse course and play its football season this fall. Nor does it mean Gov. Whitmer should give schools a blanket green light across the state. Her spokesperson said Sunday that she’ll have more to say on athletics in the near future. 

In deciding whether to exempt high school competition from an executive order that requires social distancing at all times, closes indoor pools and prohibits gatherings indoors of more than 10 people, there is a lot to consider:

First, and above all, the advice of public health officials — the data shows that not every county is ready for this.

Second, whether school districts want this decision in their hands – sometimes good leadership means playing the villain so others can maintain a sense of harmony. The MHSAA clearly doesn’t want this burden.

And third, if Whitmer does decide to allow for high school football, soccer and/or indoor sports to proceed, how to do so safely and with collective accountability amid a pandemic. 

Let’s start there and work backwards.

If the governor lets them play, she should consider setting benchmarks with COVID-19 data and putting the responsibility back in the laps of the people to make this work, county by county. Perhaps that’s having a seven-day average positivity rate under 3% — which is about as high as Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail is comfortable with — and setting a limit on cases per million residents at whatever number health officials deem responsible. The Harvard Global Health Institute recommends that number be 10 or less. 

That puts the collective responsibility on every community. If you want to play football, if you want soccer, swimming and volleyball for your children and the kids in your area, you’ve got a say in it. If you wear a mask and take this seriously, you’ve got chance for your teenagers to enjoy the competition and camaraderie that they’re craving. If the coronavirus case numbers go up and sports are paused, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself and the people around you. And a virus that’s still confounding experts.

Friday’s “Let them play” rally at the Capitol wasn’t a promising sign. At the very moment a crowd of high school athletes — overwhelmingly football players — were essentially saying, “We can handle this and we’ve done everything you’ve asked,” they largely didn’t following the easiest of guidelines, wearing a mask. From reports on the scene, at least 75 percent weren’t wearing masks during the rally or during the all-together photo-op at the end.

When I pointed it out on Twitter, some folks replied that criticizing these teenagers was a low blow. But if you’re old enough to have a say — and that’s what they were asking for — then you’re old enough to abide by the rules and be judged by your behavior. 

This wasn’t a representative group. It was mostly male, primarily white and, again, mostly football players. But it was a golden opportunity blown. How do you not require masks if you’re organizing that event?

The showing at Friday’s rally spoke to the political winds fueling discord and debate in this state (and everywhere). The MHSAA is hearing it just like school boards are. Hence reopening a discussion about playing a sport that 40 percent of its schools two weeks ago said they weren’t comfortable playing. That was a “really key data point,” Uyl said then, after the MHSAA announced it would move football to the early spring. The executive order, which also stood in the way of advancing to full-padded practices and games then, appears to be the primary road block now.

“Now that we’ve got 3 weeks of a lot of (high school football) success stories, including two neighboring states (Ohio and Indiana), I can say that we’re at least going to have the conversation, if the executive order is tweaked,” Uyl said Saturday.

Ohio just opened its shortened football season Friday night, but for a couple of weeks teams have been practicing in full pads. Indiana began playing a week earlier. There have been games canceled in Indiana and teams quarantined because players and coaches have tested positive for COVID-19. Indiana is a tough comparison, though, given the number of schools that opened with in-person classes in mid-August, despite relatively high COVID-19 positivity rates.

Here’s something else to consider: There are a lot of schools in Michigan that would prefer this not be in their hands, districts where the community is divided. They don’t want this decision. They want to be told what to do and to be able to save face with their entire constituency. 

Whitmer would be doing a lot of districts a favor in not allowing high school football to happen.

That doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be open to the idea of playing — if it’s safe enough to try. Same goes for the other fall sports that are on hold in much of the state, including the Lansing area. They should each be looked at separately and she should explain in detail why they can or can’t go forward. That’s what leadership is. Even when it’s unpopular. If the Big Ten and its presidents taught us anything, it’s that secrecy fuels angst and division. Whitmer should spell out what she’s looking for in terms of data or testing capabilities or whatever.

Because while we’re in a pandemic and sports are secondary to public health, they’re not nothing. Not to the kids who are missing out on them.

The question is whether the data allows for high school sports in the minds of public health officials. If a 3% seven-day positivity rate is the barometer, Oakland County (4.1%), Macomb County (6.8%), Monroe County (5.5%) and Wayne County (4.6%) aren’t in position to play. Same for Saginaw (5.0%), Tuscola (3.8%) and Bay counties (3.2%). Nor is Grand Traverse (3.4%) or Wexford (3.2%) up north. Or Isabella (5.4%), Van Buren (4.1%) and Berrien (3.2%) to the west.

Locally, while Ingham, Eaton and Clinton have seven-day rolling positivity rates of 2% or less, Shiawassee is at 4%. Lenawee is at 3.7%.

In other words, we aren’t there as an entire state. If you go by cases per million residents, most populous counties aren’t close to 10 per million.

“If everybody could just bite the bullet for 3 to 4 weeks: No large gatherings, wear that mask, hand hygiene, social distancing, all of that, give us a few weeks,” Vail, Ingham County’s top health official, said.

Fall high school sports, including football, don’t have a few weeks to give.

MORE:  Couch: For Lansing-area schools, some beginning in-person classes, there are no good answers

It’s either now — as in this week — or in the spring. The early spring, which isn’t ideal for anyone and is worse for those in the northern part of the state.

“I think I’ve got a handle on what spring football looks like in northern parts of our state,” Uyl said.

Maybe they should just be allowed to play high school football and volleyball now, if their COVID-19 case numbers allow for it. 

Maybe two MHSAA football seasons is the answer. As long as the spring football season remains a priority and the usual spring sports are pushed out into the early summer. Besides, if you think high school football in March in Petoskey sounds awful, you haven’t seen baseball there in April. 

My concern: This new push to revisit football this fall plays to prevailing winds from the west and north, while leaving the east side of the state in a tough spot. Same for every district that doesn’t think school is safe, let alone football.

If it’s safe to play football or volleyball or to swim, Gov. Whitmer needs to say it this week. If it’s not, she should say that, too. All in great detail and with empathy. 

“If we get approval in August yet, even if it’s into very early September … I think everybody would say, ‘Let’s get this played this fall,’ even if it’s a little shorter,” Uyl said, “because there’s just a ton of challenges that come when you start pumping stuff into next spring.”

I don’t know about everybody.

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Contact Graham Couch at Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.