To play or not to play.
That seems to be the question that is on the minds of local high school administrators, athletic directors, coaches, players and fans. The other big question is: if sports are played, are the conditions going to look anything like they have in the past?
The Ivy League and the Patriot League have announced at the collegiate level fall sports will not be held at all, while the Big Ten and PAC-12 will be playing conference games only this fall.
Locally, South Bend Community Schools announced earlier this week that, as of now, sports are going on as scheduled; however, no spectators will be allowed to attend. The decision is subject to change.
Nathan Dean is the Athletic Director at Jimtown High School and he is also an elected board member of the Indiana High School Athletic Association.
Dean was a guest on this week’s Goshen News Sports Podcast to discuss the current situation in Indiana high school sports.
“It was explained to me when I was first elected to the board in 2009 that my job is to represent all of the high schools in the state,” he said. “You have to make your decisions based on what is best for all of the schools.”
As if dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t enough to worry about, the IHSAA also has to deal with the retirement of longtime Commissioner Bobby Cox and the beginning of Paul Neidig’s term on Aug. 1. Neidig has been an assistant commissioner since 2017.
“There are some obvious challenges, but Paul will do a good job. He was selected for the position for his excellent leadership,” Dean said. “The IHSAA was going through the hiring process right about the time the pandemic hit.”
The last IHSAA board meeting was on June 25, and Dean shared the subject of moving football to the spring was discussed.
“There were many things on the table and the flip came up, but we felt the move would cause more problems than it would solve,” he said. “Schools the size of Jimtown (Class 3A) or smaller share athletes.
“If you move football to the spring and don’t move a sport like baseball, what do you do with the kid that plays both sports? Also, if you move football to the spring, how do you turn around and get the players ready for another season the following fall?
“I have not heard of a certain date that we would need to announce the flip, but it is my feeling from the June meeting that it is off the table for this year.”
Dean also doesn’t feel there is a firm date by which a decision needs to be made on having or not having the fall sports season.
“Look what happened with the boys state basketball tourney,” Dean said. “They suspended the regionals on Friday when the games were to be played on Saturday.”
Football is a big money maker for schools. Some people may not be aware of the fact that athletic departments are self-sufficient, meaning for the most part, there is a dependence on items like ticket revenue to fund their athletic programs.
“Football at most schools pays the bills,” Dean said. “If we don’t have the money from football, other sports like golf or cross country might not be possible. The general athletic fund pays for the coaches, equipment, bus transportation and most anything else needed to run the sport.
“Now, if we have to put in something like a turf field, then the school system would help out. Our superintendent and administration at Jimtown have been very supportive.”
Jimtown has not started selling football season tickets for this fall.
“I know if we would be selling there would be the die-hards that would buy, while others will wait and see what happens,” Dean said.
When Dean started planning his athletic budget for this year, long before the coronavirus came along, he was excited about how the 2020 Jimtown football season begins.
The Jimmies are slated to host two of their biggest rivals with the NorthWood Panthers traveling to Sharpe Stadium on Friday, Aug. 21 to open the season followed by the Concord Minutemen the next week.
“Having those games back-to-back is awesome,’ Dean shared. “My first thoughts were that is a big year for us.”
Dean had to make some schedule adjustments this season due to Elkhart Central and Elkhart Memorial merging into one school. The consolidation created an opening in the Northern Lakes Conference, with the new Elkhart High School joining the Northern Indiana Conference. Mishawaka is moving from the NIC to the NLC.
Dean also talked about playing football games with no fans.
“It could work, but it would be tough,” he said. “You would have all of the expense but none of the revenue. There are still expenses. We spent $7,000 to $8,000 this year to have our equipment — mainly helmets and shoulder pads — re-certified. Every Jimtown player that walks on the field has on between $200 and $400 worth of equipment.”
Another aspect of football is keeping the ball sanitized in an effort to keep the coronavirus from spreading. In each play, the game ball is touched by multiple players and officials.
“Assistant IHSAA Commissioner Robert Faulkens is in charge of football and he is working on a plan to sanitize footballs on the sidelines,” Dean explained. “Saliva is an issue, so keeping things sanitary never hurts, but I’m not sure you can get away from it.”
South Bend St. Joseph and Fishers are among the schools around the state that have shut down summer workouts due to the number of positive tests for COVID-19.
“We have to take things one step at a time. We are on the second week of Phase 1 of the reopening plan,” Dean said. “We can’t look too far ahead.
“I think at this point the IHSAA wants to handle this like injuries. When a player has a concussion, they are not allowed back on the field until being cleared by a physician. The same number of practices required before being allowed to participate would be required whether it was an injury or the coronavirus.”
High school sports are an important part of the education process and all efforts should be made to hold events this fall. But the deciding factors should not be how are athletic departments going to operate if sporting events are not held or if they are held with limited or no fans.
The top priority has to be the health and safety of the players, coaches and any other essential personnel that would be involved. The financial impact should never take priority over getting this pandemic under control.