The lights were turned off at Eastern Alamance High’s Fred Brady Stadium Friday night, on what likely would have been EAHS’s season opening victory against Graham for the start of another promising football season.
Although high school sports are temporarily on hold for public schools in North Carolina, the state's athletic governing body has laid out a framework for the majority of sports to return in the coming months.
North Carolina High School Athletic Association President Que Tucker answered numerous questions about the NCHSAA’s 2020-21 athletics schedule, which was released last week. The sports of volleyball, men’s and women’s cross country, and men’s and women’s swimming and diving are slated to begin in November, with all other sports starting after the first of the year. Men’s and women’s basketball can begin playing games on January 4, with football starting in February.
Tucker explained numerous facets of the NCHSAA’s plan, while providing insight as to the governing body’s plan heading into the fall.
“As I’ve stated all along, our goal has been to return to the athletic fields and courts as soon as possible - but as safely as we possibly can,” the NCHSAA Commissioner said. “We know that education-based athletics has benefits to the young people across our state. The advantages to education-based athletics are that is helps the physical, mental, emotional, and social well-being of our student-athletes. It’s not just one area.”
“We believe that our coaches in North Carolina provide opportunities for young people to address those various areas. And we want our students to have the opportunity the gain the benefits from participating in athletics, but at the same time, we know we must do our part to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
“There were many speculations that sports would be cancelled - that we would not be able to play at all,” Tucker added. “We’ve seen the passion of people across this state in many, many ways - phone calls, emails, text messages, and of course all the other platforms that are out there.”
Tucker answers a variety of questions about the current situation below.
For those seven weeks of football, will those include playoffs, or will playoffs happen after that? And what was the reasoning for picking February as that month? Are you assuming there will be a vaccine at that time? And if so, would you require athletes to get it?
“I’m not assuming anything. We didn’t put this calendar based on assumptions. We put the calendar together based on the guidelines from NCDHHS as it relates to how we could perhaps play sports.”
“We know that this is very fluid. It is our hope, just like every other state association across the country, it is our hope that as we move forward - the calendar does not start until late in the fall, right around when we’re looking at winter beginning - we hope that the conditions in our state as it relates to this pandemic will have gotten to the point, that whenever we hear Dr. Cohen talk, she will be satisfied that those percentages and that the numbers are where they need to be in North Carolina.”
“We put the calendar together based on current and factual information.”
“As to football beginning the 8th of February, we put that start date there with the idea that they will have enough days to be able to get in their conditioning. They have to have eight separate days of conditioning prior to being able to have contact with an outside group, or being able to go full body-to-body contact. This allows that opportunity by pushing it back to the 8th of February.”
“Those weeks do not have the playoffs in them. This calendar does not reflect playoff dates. Those are yet to be determined. Those will be put in place by the help of outside groups - our stakeholders and certainly our sports medicine advisory committee.”
Has there been any discussion about letting schools that don’t make the playoffs in a certain sport get extra competition, such as an extra game, or are those hard numbers?
“They are hard numbers for the regular season. What would happen in the postseason, after the regular season ends, we have not put those in place. But as it relates to having some discussion about additional contests, we have had those discussions. But they have not taken any concrete shape at this point. We would continue to look at that, and then work with our board to see if that is something we would be able to allow.”
With the football schedule, has there been any discussion as to what those seven games will be? Will it be all conference games, or will there be an opportunity for non-conference games?
“We haven’t zeroed in on whether it has to be all conference games. Now, we understand that every member school plays in a conference unless they’re an independent member. But they’re all in a conference. And conference games are always important. Would we like for everybody to be able to play every member of their conference? Absolutely. We would like that. But as we move forward, we would like to remain very flexible and very open as to how we look at that, so that as we make decisions on what the playoffs would look like - who could qualify for those playoffs - we would look at having this many conference games involved.”
“Or, we could say that it doesn’t matter how many conference games are involved. The conferences could make the determination as to who would qualify into the playoffs. So we have some latitude to be able to do that. And we certainly will take strong looks at that. The ad-hoc committee and the leadership groups across the state will be brought back to the Zoom table, so they can help us with some of those details.”
In the event that the Governor opens the state up in the fall, would that change anything with this schedule? Has the length of the postseasons been determined?
“I hope that whenever we move into Phase 3 as North Carolinians, I have great confidence that the Governor and Dr. Cohen will provide us the best available information at the time. Based upon the information I’ve received, the vaccine is still a ways away. I want nothing better than for us to open up everything. And if that does occur sooner rather than later, we will look at that. But we will also work hand-in-hand with the State Board of Education, as well as the Department of Public Instruction. Because they too have guidelines that we need to walk hand-in-hand with.”
“It’s not just that the Governor would open up everything. We would have to know then what does that mean for the public education system that is governed by our State Board of Education.”
Lacrosse, boy’s soccer, and football are going to have a period of overlap in the winter. There are concerns about field space, as well as players who play multiple sports. What was the reason for not having lacrosse with some of the spring sports later in the year?
“Our stakeholders’ group and our Board of Directors looked at a plan. And we tried to put together a plan that could work. The Board looked at it, and sent it forward to an ad-hoc committee. An ad-hoc committee group looked at it. We broke that calendar down. We move some things around. And we put certain sports in different quadrants, paired up with other sports.”
“There was a time when we met with the ad-hoc that we didn’t have anything other than basketball being played in the month of January. But then the other factors kicked in, such as transportation. And I think it is very important for us all to recognize that we’re talking about a time when there are guidelines for how students will be able to board an activity bus. How many students can they put that activity bus?”
“To try to take those three sports, and put them in with some other sports, as the committee, as we moved those pieces around, there became concerns. That will create this many teams needing to ride on an activity bus. So we did start moving things around.”
“We were concerned, more so than the wear and tear on the fields, we were concerned about playing those sports during January. Because we know that typically January is a very rough month, although I can remember times when January wasn’t nearly as cold as other months have been. I don’t think we had snow last year until wrestling.”
“We don’t have any control over the weather. We understand that. So we had to make some tough decisions, when you factor in some of those pieces, especially transportation. We don’t like sports overlapping. But if you look back at the history of the NCHSAA, for the most part, there’s always an overlap of seasons. It occurs with volleyball and basketball. It happens with football and basketball on the men’s side. So we have to make those adjustments.”
“We hope that this is a one-year blip in our radar. And we will have to make some sacrifices. But if we can get through it, we will.”
Will the NCHSAA decide whether fans are going to be allowed at games? Or are you going to be leaving that up to the individual school boards?
“At some point in time, the Governor is going to play a large role in how many people can gather outdoors. Once we get that information - and if it is such that we can gather larger groups in a stadium, and there is flexibility to be able to help determine that - we will work with our member schools in terms of here’s what we think you ought to do.”
“The first step has to be taken from the Governor’s office, from the Department of Health and Human Services, as it relates to gatherings outdoors. So we won’t be making that decision. But we could certainly participate, once we know where the gathering limitations are.”
With the January 4 start date for basketball, is that locked in stone? Will there be a waiver process for NCHSAA schools to play one or two of their 14 games in a Holiday tournament in December?
“That was discussed. Our Board of Directors entertained that idea, that if we were going to allow basketball to start practice in the early part of December, could we have those Holiday tournaments? After discussing that, some of the points that were brought out include bringing out-of-state teams for example, but just bringing in teams from other counties, in December, when we still probably still will not have a vaccine, it becomes problematic.”
“When you host a tournament - many of our member schools host their own Christmas tournaments - you have all of these people coming onto your campus. They need to be able to get into your locker rooms.”
“If you’re having concession stands, and if you’re at a point in time when spectators could be at unlimited numbers, then we would be increasing those contact points. The feeling was, let’s just push this farther out, and this would simply be one of those years where tournaments would not occur for basketball. We did have that discussion.”
“I don’t know that the entire plan is in cement, because of COVID-19. It is as firm as we can make it right now in light of the fact that COVID-19 is still raging in our state, still raging in various communities. So we will do everything we can to be able to play, and allow basketball to be able to start those games after January 4.”
Are there going to be individual wrestling tournaments on the weekend? Will there be regional and state tournaments?
“We haven’t worked out all of the details. But right now, the thinking is we would limit those sports to dual matches. Why is that? Again, to try to minimize the contact points. The more you have in a facility - and wrestling is a sport that is played indoors - the more people you have involved, the more wrestlers you have. You have people coming from different parts of a county, from across county lines, from different geographical regions in our state. The increased possibility for bringing the virus into a setting such as individual wrestling tournaments - just as we talked about with basketball.”
“The thinking is we would limit those with dual team matches. But I want to emphasize we do not have all the nuts and bolts in place. We needed to have a calendar out. But in particular, to our students, and then our coaches, parents, and the general population, here is what we are going to do as it relates to the calendar. And over the course of the next week, we have time to put those in place, because we do not start playing until November 4.”
Will there be exemptions for student-athletes to be allowed to play more than one sport at a time, or more than one game in different sports in the same week?
“Here’s the NCHSAA’s position on multiple sport players in the same season. We do not have a rule that prohibits players from participating in multiple sports. In fact, a few years ago we had a young man from down in Carteret County participating in seven sports. During the course of the year, he was participating at some time at three sports going on at the same time. So we do not have a rule that prohibits that.”
“We have limitations as it relates to a single sport. But as it relates to crossing sports, there would be no problem. We have several soccer players who are the kicker for the football team. Often times a kicker will show up at a football game after having played in a soccer match that day. So there is no rule that would prohibit that.”
With a weekly limit of two games per week, would there be the possibility of weather postponements being played over the weekend? Or is that set in stone?
“We certainly have talked about that, if we run into situations where there are weather concerns? Would we have some flexibility? Learning this year will be much different. It will look very similar to what happened in the spring. But I would dare say that our school systems are much more sophisticated in being able to manage remote learning. That they will be treated much differently than in the spring. The environment for learning will be different. And this is going to be a transition period for those young people. We certainly understand the need for having flexibility. And we will certainly do that as we move along?”
With the push of football to February, can you relay the significance of spectators, and the possibility of having full or close to full attendance at those seven events?
“We would like to think that in North Carolina, we’re at a point in time where the Governor has raised the limitations on outdoor gatherings, so that we could have a lot of spectators in the stands. We believe it gives us the best chance to have more people in the stands by playing later in the calendar year.”
“We have four sports that are starting to play prior to the second semester - volleyball, cross country, and swimming/diving. But if you think about it, the numbers of spectators are not the same as the number of spectators that you would have at an outdoor facility, such as football stadiums.”
“Even in basketball, by not starting to play until after Christmas in basketball, we again buy some time in order to see where we are in North Carolina, and are we at a point in time where the numbers have been lifted, and we would be able to work with our school systems to see how many people can we put in the gym. Even for volleyball, it is an indoor sport. There will be some limitations, I would venture to guess, how many people can be in the stands at volleyball matches. But I believe this framework gives us the best chance to have spectators, if the state law allows it.”
Would the NCHSAA be willing to play fall sports with little to no spectators? Is there something that has to happen first in order for this calendar to proceed? Does North Carolina need to be in Phase 3 before sports can be played?
“I would think certainly North Carolina being in Phase 3, it plays a major role in whether or not we’re able to proceed even in November. If we can only have ten bodies in the gym. We’re operating in Phase 2 under ten person limitations in a gym. Well, if those guidelines have not eased to the point where we could have more people in the gym (we can’t play), because those ten people would include the coaches, managers, trainers, etc.”
“Moving to Phase 3 is obviously very important. And I think it’s important for everybody to understand the NCHSAA staff and Board of Directors have no intentions of violating the Executive Orders of the Governor. We have no intentions of stepping outside the guidelines.”
Has there been any discussion about reducing the state playoffs?
“We’ve looked at all kinds of things. Could we play everything as we normally have? In all likelihood, we can’t because again, we know there is that overlapping of season. There probably will be some limitations, particularly in the number of teams and the number of persons who would be participating in our playoffs.”
Let’s use cross country as an example. We’ve had unlimited numbers of participants who could go to a Regional in cross country. And then obviously we have some specifications relative to qualifying for the state (meet). We will have to look at those as we get closer to the playoffs, even in a sport like cross country. We will monitor that. And if we need to squeeze something, if we’re still able to play a regular season, and then have a shortened playoffs, we will obviously do that. But we’re hopeful that we can provide a meaningful and special postseason play for any of the teams and individuals who do qualify for postseason competition.”
Are you looking at pushing back football for the start of 2021?
“There are no plans to push anything back, or to do anything differently as it relates to 2021-22. Will we have to make modifications in terms of our summer workouts and summer conditionings in 2021? Absolutely, if we are able to play sports at all during this upcoming school year. We would be looking to do that. We have time to work on how it will look. And again, what the conditions are, and what we would be able to do, would be the guiding principle.”
If there is social distancing in volleyball, would there be a chance to use both sides of the court for matches? Currently many schools use just one side of the bleachers……
“We would certainly take a look at that. If that’s part of what would need to happen in order for us to play volleyball, then we certainly would encourage our schools to pull out both sets of bleachers so that we can social distance those spectators. It could be that a school has some requirements of their own. If we’re trying to play the sport, and if it means that two sets of bleachers will need to pulled out, then we will work with our schools to encourage that will happen.”
What is the NCHSAA’s policy on if a student transferred back and forth from a private school to a public school, such as playing a fall sport at a private school and then wished to play that same sport at a public school in the winter or spring?
“We have a rule that’s real clear on that one. You get four separate seasons in high school of a sport. If I’m a volleyball player, I can play my freshman year, my sophomore year, my junior year, and my senior year. So you have four seasons. And once you play that season, you only get four. There are some things that could happen that might allow a student to play some games in another state, or some games in a private non-member school, and then come back to us. In those scenarios, we would take a look at how many games have they played in the setting where they were, and then what’s allowed in the remainder of the season once they come back to our member school.”
“There are some things that parents will need to pay particular attention to. I’m certainly aware that Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina have plans to play football in the fall of the year.
But you cannot have more than four separate seasons.”
What is the NCHSAA’s plan on individual Regionals in men’s and women’s golf and tennis?
“We have not gotten to that point yet. As we make these decisions and get them vetted by different individuals, and we have an opportunity to put the nuts and bolts in place, we don’t know how anything is going to look like as far as postseason. I can’t give you any answers relative to postseason, except to say that the NCHSAA does want to have postseason competition. Because we believe it is important for young people to have that as a goal. We’re going to try to make that work. That’s the best answer I can give to you on that.”
Will football teams be allowed to participate in 7-on-7 competitions?
“We have to make sure we’re following the guidelines. If teams are doing 7-on-7 internally, then yes, we wouldn’t have any issues with that. But they cannot wear protective equipment until we would allow that. Typically when our teams are participating in 7-on-7’s, they typically wear the helmet. Right now we’re in Phase 2, which means no protective equipment worn by anybody. And we will stay in Phase 2 until at least September 11, when we expect the Governor will make an announcement relative to moving into Phase 3. If they’re doing that on their team, and they’re doing that with the guidelines that we still have in place, there wouldn’t be any problem with that. We would not prohibit that, but they would have to do it right now without protective equipment, while following the guidelines.”
Where do things stand with cheerleader participation right now?
“The NCHSAA governs cheerleading as an activity. We govern it as a spirit group, and they are allowed to cheer at football and basketball games. There’s nothing that says cheerleaders cannot cheer at soccer matches. We typically do not see that. The reason we didn’t say a whole lot about that is I think it’s understood that cheerleading is a part of our reopening guide book. We’ve addressed what cheerleaders can do in Phase 2. They, likewise, will remain in Phase 2 until we move into a different phase, depending on when the Governor makes that announcement, and when he gives us further guidelines relative to mass gatherings.”
“We would not prohibit cheerleaders from being on the sidelines at basketball and football games. But it still has to be done following the guidelines that we will be operating under once we get to basketball season, if we get to football season, if in fact we get there. We want to. That will be a great problem to have, if we’re figuring out how to get our cheerleaders involved.”
“This is a very fluid situation. We know this is fluid. We know that if conditions do not get to a level that allows us to transition into Phase 3, then certainly we will have to make some adjustments. We’re hopeful that will not happen.”