10 surprising changes likely coming to school sports this fall

For high school coaches, athletes and fans, the 2020-21 athletic season will be very different from years' past as traditions give way to safety measures.
By: | July 27, 2020
Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty Images

As school districts wrestle with decisions on how to return this fall – online, in-person or hybrid – nearly every state athletic association has a plan for when its seasons will begin.

Alabama officially opens football practice today. California is delaying all athletics until at least December. Texas is making large school programs wait a month, while other sports can begin as soon as Aug. 3. Florida announced Thursday it is pushing all football games back to mid-September.

Regardless of when student-athletes return to action – many are at the mercy of local health department decisions and heeding guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) – surreal scenes will play out on and off the football fields, volleyball courts and even golf courses.

Student-athletes likely will travel to games wearing masks. Coaches will be monitoring players via temperature checks and ensuring they are symptom-free to participate in any activity. Referees will be more hands off. Even band members who are allowed to attend events will be socially distanced, on the field and in the bleachers.

“Clearly, sports will look different this year,” Bernard Childress, the executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association said at a meeting last week. Tennessee’s contact sports can’t begin until Gov. Bill Lee’s emergency order is lifted (slated for Aug. 29). “We have to be flexible and understand that we’re in a unique situation. We’re trying to make the best decision for young people.”

Like many other states, officials from the Ohio High School Athletic Association have been out front in trying to relay resources, information and guidance to member schools, even using the hashtag #IWantASeason. It has worked with several national governing bodies, including the United States Tennis Association and United States Golf Association, in drafting recommendations for the upcoming season. And yet, it still is cautioning that it may be revised as it prepares to open practices on Aug. 1.

In a statement to its member schools, the OHSAA said: “This is not an exhaustive list and there might be additional steps in each school, city, and state to help prevent the spread of virus. Even when taking all precautions, there will still be risk of transmitting illnesses. Everyone should stay vigilant about the health of members of their teams.”

Maybe the biggest takeaway from the OHSAA was this: “The situation with Covid-19 is rapidly changing. These recommendations may quickly become outdated.”

How different will athletics look?

Some of the proposed guidelines from state associations are eye-opening and historic, especially for staff, parents and athletes used to seeing athletics operate a certain way. Subtle traditions that have lasted 50 years or more are set to disappear.

Ohio, Maryland and Arizona have some of the most thorough guidelines of schools looking to safely start up play in 2020. Here are 10 recommendations that they and other state associations are proposing:

  1. Hands-off rituals. Many state associations, including the OHSAA and AIA (Arizona Interscholastic Association), are recommending that players across all sports avoid handshakes, hugs and high-fives. That includes the customary tradition of golfers offering handshakes at the first tee for a match against competitors and during the coin toss at football games. Athletes also will be asked to avoid multi-player celebrations after goals, points and touchdowns.
  2. Ball cleaning: From volleyball to tennis to football, any balls being put into play or new balls being used should be sanitized. Football officials typically play a big part in spotting footballs after downs. Instead, as the OHSAA notes, they may use beanbags to mark those spots while offensive players bring the ball into the huddle and then spot them. Tennis players are being asked to return balls to opponents by using their rackets or feet and not picking them up with their hands.
  3. Distancing on the court and on the field: Speaking of tennis, maybe the most intriguing and challenging recommendation the OHSAA put out in its materials is to have doubles tennis players “coordinate” to promote social distancing on the court. Although many other sports such as soccer and football can’t physically distance on the field, expect to see bigger benches, bigger sidelines and less interaction off the field. During timeouts, players will be asked to socially distance.
  4. No sharing. In its Phase 4 Return to Play plan, the Illinois High School Association’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee is asking that all athletic equipment, from lacrosse helmets to catcher’s gear to hockey pads to simple scrimmage “pennies”, be worn by only one individual and not shared. For equipment that may be shared, such as weights, bats and sticks, associations recommend they be sanitized before each use.
  5. Staying in their lane/side: Cross-country competitors are likely to see staggered starts and possibly staggered finishes, depending on the course to avoid large gatherings. As some spots on trails can be narrow, the OHSAA is recommending widening areas to more than 6 feet. In volleyball, the customary switch of sides and benches before a deciding set likely will not happen. If it becomes necessary, the OHSAA says “sanitizing chairs in between is a switch is recommended.” When county officials open pools in California, the California Interscholastic Federation is recommending swimmers remain 6 feet apart with no lane-sharing.
  6. Beverages and food: Depending on how “open” each state and their schools are, it is unlikely that concessions will be open during games initially. On the field, players will be expected to bring their own drinks and have them labeled, including water bottles. The tradition of having volunteers bring water bottles out to players on a football field will be eliminated. Any food brought in must be prepackaged for individual use. No sunflower seeds and no spitting will be allowed.
  7. Fewer referees? In a recent survey of 20,000 officials, Referee Magazine noted that 40 percent of referees ages 65 and over are not comfortable officiating during the pandemic, while a third of those between ages 25-34 also expressed concerns about returning. That said, many officials in Georgia say they are willing to return as long as there are protocols and safety measures in place, such as sanitizing supplies, to protect them. Events in states where COVID-19 is more prevalent could see far fewer officials.
  8. Off-limits locker rooms. One of the biggest areas of concern for potential spread of any virus at high schools are locker rooms and weight rooms. These confined spaces can be a strong breeding ground for airborne and surface transmission. Many associations and doctors are recommending limited use of the facilities for players and especially older staff members. Some are closing them altogether while waiting for local public health department clearance. Some are asking athletes and officials to arrive to games already in uniform or get “taped up” outside of locker rooms.
  9. Student waivers: Athletes and parents may be asked to sign waivers that outline their acknowledgement that they will act responsibly in keeping themselves, coaches, officials and competitors safe by following mandates. Some of those agreements may include additional measures to mitigate any potential virus spread, including testing for COVID-19.
  10. Empty stands. The South Bend School District in Indiana is one of a number that is not allowing spectators at any athletic events this fall. Fans in Texas will be allowed to attend games … but capacity will be limited to 50 percent, and possibly less depending on the district. Those who cheer on their teams will be required to wear masks.

One source that can be helpful in tracking state-by-state information on athletics can be found at the Next College Student Athlete website. For real-time information, you can go to the high school recruiting website MaxPreps.


Chris Burt is an editor and reporter for District Administration. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com