CIAC Finally Admits Defeat:  Football Done Until 2021

THE DAY AFTER - In spite of the CIAC’s formal announcement canceling the 2020 high school football season the previous day, the Watertown High School players and coaches were still working out in cohort groups on September 17 at the John Mills Complex. (Dreher photo) 

CHESHIRE – After what seemed like an eternity of dilly-dallying with the emotions of so many people, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference finally arrived at a what seemed like the end-game all along. Literally. On September 16, the CIAC Board of Control reaffirmed their earlier decision to cancel full contact football for the 2020-2021 school year. Under severe pressure from an unyielding state Department of Health, which (In the strongest possible terms) recommended that, as a ‘high-risk’ sport, football should not be played in its traditional fall spot.

The board did, however, agree it “would consider allowing competition at a later time for a sport that cannot hold its regularly scheduled season, such as football, provided it does not negatively impact spring sports,” it said in a statement after the decision was handed down.

In an effort to lift the spirits of his players and coaches, Watertown High School coach Shawn Stanco, who has known not a single day of what could be called normalcy since his appointment to the head job in February, addressed the situation  head-on.

At all of the Indians’ 10-player cohort practices after the announcement was handed down, Stanco confirmed the bad news on 11 vs. 11, but also stressed that there are options still available.

“Seven-on-seven is still on the table,” Stanco first said of the preferred method of the DPH and which is being played in Vermont. “Also, spring football is still on the table,” Stanco said of another option, which will be used in Massachusetts.

The disappointment was palpable

Said one player, “it’s tough to watch guys in other states playing on TV and then not hearing about any rises, but we can’t play,” he said. “it’s just not right.”

Also given the thumbs-down was the CIAC’s approach which would have allowed contact beginning on September 21; instead, the CIAC football committee will recommend what it called “low and moderate-risk football activities in which schools may continue to engage their football athletes.”

Said CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini as he made the announcement, “We made every effort to weigh all factors in this decision, including the passionate voices of students, parents, and school personnel, and ultimately made the determination to align its decision with the recommendations of the Governor’s office and DPH to not hold high-risk sports at this time. “In conversation with other state associations across the country, it was clear that a key factor in playing interscholastic football was alignment with the opinion of their state’s governor and health agency.”

After a passionate protest by players, coaches and fans at the State Capitol in Hartford on September 10, the DPH and CIAC met the next day, with the CIAC presenting a new list of protocols after consulting with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).

It was a long shot to convince DPH acting commissioner Deidre Gifford, and she was not swayed, even though the CIAC’s plan was endorsed by the CSMS Sports Medicine Committee.

DPH replied that the plan “will not sufficiently mitigate the risk to lower the categorization of football from ‘high risk’ to ‘moderate risk.”” 

In a final blow, in discussions with the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS), it was made clear to the CIAC that its members are not public health experts and, as such, on the matter of playing football, CAPSS would defer to “the appropriate state and local public health authorities.”

In their statement, the CIAC warmed that football may only be the first target.

“The CIAC is concerned that DPH’s recommendation to postpone higher risk sports to a later time is reserved for CIAC sanctioned interscholastic athletics. In fact, as the CIAC is not sanctioning a football season at this time, schools, with approval from their local DPH, may opt to play full contact football as a ‘club’ sport, similar to girls ice hockey, without adherence to CIAC COVID mitigating plans. 

“The CIAC has previously tried to make DPH and the governor’s office aware of the inconsistency that permits our same student population to engage in non-interscholastic high risk sports with less oversight and fewer COVID mitigating strategies. Furthermore, the CIAC has expressed its concern that this inconsistency promotes an inequity in sport opportunities.”

With that in mind, the CIAC had some legitimate questions on where it goes from here with football, among them:

1. How many sports are impacted to the extent where it cannot compete during its regularly scheduled season?

2. What other public health strategies have become available and are supported with better research?

3. How will facility scheduling be impacted?

4. The impact to field maintenance and playability.

5. The viability of synthetic surface fields passing the G-max test during winter months.

6. How has the COVID climate in Connecticut improved to support interscholastic high-risk athletics at a later time?

In the end, while the adults in the conference rooms bickered, those hurt the most, the players, coaches, and parents are still dealing with the shock of having another precious  part of the high school experience taken away from them.

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