Brave new world…how COVID-19 is changing AZ prep sports

We still don’t know when high school sports in Arizona will resume, but when they do, there will be a lot of changes that players and coaches will have to deal with.

It will be a whole new experience, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that closed the schools in mid-March.

But, at least now there is a blueprint for re-opening activities, thanks to a 10-page list of guidelines issued last week by the Sport Medical Advisory Committee (SMAC) of the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), the governing body for high school sports in the state.

Just days after its release, the AIA Executive Board called a special meeting to review the recommendations, and quickly announced its support of the suggested procedures included in the document.  As a “living document,” it can be modified as future circumstances dictate.

We’re just getting ready to begin Phase I of the step-by-step re-opening process, as high school athletic directors and coaches continue to await word from their district administrators as to when fall sports teams can take the field to begin season preparations.

Up to this time, training has been limited mostly to Zoom sessions for the team and home workouts for the individuals.  But that can’t substitute for the physical conditioning that is critical to the players’ preparation — or the hands-on instruction from the coaching staff.

When the time arrives, parents and friends won’t be able to watch practices and scrimmages.  Players will have to drive themselves or be dropped off at the site and go directly to the field since locker rooms will be closed.  They will need to arrive in their practice gear, have their own water bottles (and towels) since drinking fountains won’t be operating, and probably have to wear face masks since the SMAC report “strongly recommends” it.

And when they do get the team together again, players can forget about expressing their emotions with hugs, high-fives, or even fist bumps.  The SMAC says that will be a no-no.

Of course, there will be the customary six-foot distancing and temperature checks, and each player will be required to bring his/her own ball and any additional equipment.  No sharing.  And all equipment will need to be disinfected before and after training sessions.

Players must leave immediately after practice and, once home, will need a shower as soon as arriving.  There should be a designated place in the home for the player’s clothes that will need to be washed, so there is no contact with clothing of other family members.

During Phase I, the SMAC recommends limiting group activities to no more than 10 people.  Phase II will increase that to 50 players, but public facilities (including gyms) will be closed for both phases.  Phase III will allow the opening of facilities, with ‘regular’ group size and the resumption of ‘usual activity.’  Social distancing will not be required, but is still recommended in the report.

When Phase IV of this slow, phased approach finally arrives, teams will be able to resume games and tournaments.

Throughout the 10 pages, guidelines have also been included for school administrators and facilities management, as well as the athletes and coaches, to assure that healthy operations and environments are maintained.

AIA Executive Director David Hines took a cautionary approach in a press release accompanying the SMAC recommendations.  “We are not guaranteed to have a fall (sports) season,” he said.  “We are preparing to be ready on time, but it will all depend on how this situation develops as the summer goes on.

“We just ask that schools, coaches, players, and parents consider and utilize the guidelines until we get back to normal.”

Unfortunately, no one knows when ‘normal’ will finally arrive.  There are 11 weeks until the first football games on the 2020 schedule.