This past week saw the high school football landscape take one step forward toward what is certain to be a season like no other.
On Jul 21 and 22, iHeart Radio’s 910-1310 AM radio station hosted its third annual High School Media Days. Media Days presented both Lee Scott Academy and Auburn High School coaches and players, along with many other area teams.
While most of the day’s proceedings held an optimistic view toward the season, it was still uncertain whether a football season would even be allowed. Then just one day after Media Days finished, the Alabama High School Athletic Association held a virtual press conference where they revealed that football may indeed have a season, although it will come with some changes.
The press conference, led by AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese and Assistant Director Denise Ainsworth, presented the Best Practice document, which describes the outline for what fall sports will look like in the fall.
After consulting with the NCAA, the National Federation of High School Association, ADPH, CDC, and other high school athletic associations, the AHSAA presented the Best Practice document as the tentative plan to continue competition.
Despite the hope of sports, both Savarese and Ainsworth repeatedly emphasized that both the Best Practice document and their decisions are not set in stone.
“Sports could change almost immediately,” said Savarese. “Interscholastic activities as well as our best practice document is fluid. Our medical advisory board will continue to analyze new information.”
In order to make fall sports happen, and in particular football as safe as possible, the AHSAA released several rule changes in the Best Practice document.
The two largest rule changes were an extension of the players sideline box and an extension of the timeout length. While the players box was originally from the 25 to 25 yard line, it has now been extended from the 10 yard line to 10 yard line in order to promote social distancing. Coaches must remain within the 25 yard lines. Timeouts are extended to two minutes in order to allow for individual water bottles and social distancing to be maintained.
While the AHSAA has cleared sports for the moment, Savarese stressed that while new measures are being taken to ensure the safety of players, it will not eliminate it entirely.
“These best practices will not eliminate the risk, only mitigate it,” said Savarese. “Parents must make a personal choice as to whether they let their children play in sports.”
Savarese also said that unless the Alabama Department of Public Health or the governor shuts down schools, sports participation would remain the decision of individual school systems and parents.
“Everyone should understand that sports will not be normal this season,” said Savarese. “We cannot think in normal terms, therefore our board has given schools the flexibility to play or not play without penalty and for school officials to use their best judgment based on the most recent data for their specific region of the state.”
With school systems being autonomous as to whether they play, games can be forfeited without penalty with a letter from the superintendent of a school system to the AHSAA. The effect this could have on the season will remain to be seen, but for now each school district has autonomy over what happens with their football teams.
Auburn High School is just one of the many football teams trying to manage the development of their players while staying as healthy as possible. Head Coach Adam Winegarden spoke about the progress of his team at the High School Media Days.
“It was going to be evident when they came back who had developed good habits and who had developed bad habits and that's become somewhat evident as they have come back,” said Winegarden.
For Lee-Scott Head Coach Buster Daniel, his players' progression through both the pandemic and the coaching change has made him proud.
“They've done a great job, they come (through) everything with what we call a lunch-pail system — ready to work and they’ve done a great job,” said Daniel
For the senior football players, the pandemic has taught them many valuable life lessons, while many are just hoping to have the opportunity to play.
“Don't take for granted what life throws at you,” said AHS senior Burnard Thomas. “All these things that we have been blessed with and all these things are given to us, going to football games, March Madness, sports in general. We should just take it all in and not take it for granted.”
It is important to Savarese and the AHSAA that schools have the autonomy to choose what their sports will look like this fall. It will be up to each school system as to whether they play, and what stadium capacity will be. However, the AHSAA is ruling that if stadium capacity is reduced, it must be even for both home and visitor teams.
“This is not a one size fits all conundrum,” said Savarese. “It's essential that everyone do their part to mitigate their virus to ensure our students have the opportunity to live as normal a childhood as possible.”
Schools had the option to resume football practice on Monday July 27th, but can start later if they so choose. All teams must have 13 days of practice before they can participate in a game. With so much uncertainty about the future, one thing is certain, and that is that the AHSAA will be making every effort possible to have a football season as safely as possible.
To read the full Best Practice document go to www.ahsaa.com .