The people entrusted with whether or not high school football will be played this fall in Alabama are motivated by pure intentions.
That’s about the only thing during this dangerous and largely mysterious pandemic that shouldn’t be in question. But that doesn’t mean some of their recommendations for how to proceed aren’t going to be proven wrong.
“Regardless of your position with the virus and sports, your position on whether to return or not to return to school, your perspective is right,” Steve Savarese, executive director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association, said. “There is no wrong position here, but the choice to participate must remain with the parents.”
I’ve known Savarese for 24 years, a few years after he famously coached future NFL star Cornelius Bennett at Ensley High School, but long before he became a state championship coach at Daphne and eventually the leader of the association that oversees high school sports in this state. Anyone who questions whether Savarese is motivated by anything other than what’s best for the athletes in this state (or, as he’s fond of saying, “our children”) is simply wrong.
That doesn’t mean he’s necessarily right when he steadfastly maintains, “I can you tell that unless we get an order from the governor to shut down, we are going to start football on Aug. 21.”
Certainly, his position is not in lockstep with Mobile Public Schools Superintendent Chresal Threadgill. Nobody should question that Threadgill is doing what he believes is best for the students and staff at the state’s largest school district by delaying the start of school by two weeks and then limiting it to virtual instruction.
It’s baffling that Threadgill didn’t also shut down sports for the next three months when he made the announcement about virtual instruction. It’s incongruent that students would be deemed unsafe in English class but safe blocking and tackling each other on the football field.
Threadgill may eventually confirm he can’t justify that incongruity. For now, athletes are left to train for a season that may never come to pass.
His could very well be the correct decision. Or perhaps Savarese — who understands as well as anyone the incredible benefits that will be lost and lessons that will go unlearned if we cancel the season — will be proven to be right.
It’s hard for most of us to know the right answer.
The best we can do is rely on experts. In an effort to do just that, I tracked down the person who I believe is as qualified as anyone to weigh in on whether or not we should be playing high school football during a pandemic.
He is a doctor fighting on the front lines every day in one of Alabama’s hotspots for COVID-19.
He’s also been to a high school football game every fall Friday night since he was born. That’s not a figure of speech. The son of a coach, he earned a medical degree and then returned home to open a family medical practice and join the leadership of the high school quarterback club; he’s firmly entrenched in both worlds.
I don’t know anyone more dedicated to public health or more in touch with how much it means to smell the freshly cut grass on a football field as an entire town shuts down to watch their young men battle their rivals with everything inside them.
That sounds like the kind of person to be able to consider every factor of this issue that is so complicated for most of us. He’s exactly the kind of person we should all want to hear from on the subject, right?
Well, here’s what he had to say (while requesting his name not appear in print):
“It’s ludicrous that we’re considering playing football right now,” he told me. “This thing is awful. I’ve got one patient on a ventilator and another trying to stay off a ventilator right now. What people don’t understand is that it’s not about how many kids are going to get sick. It’s about them contracting the virus then taking it home to their parents and grandparents, who are at a much higher risk of being severely affected.”
His opinion about kids returning to brick-and-mortar schools is more nuanced, but he’s concerned about that, as well.
State Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey has strongly encouraged local school leaders across the state to open their doors to students. Mackey’s unambiguous message has made Savarese’s decision to move forward with offering sports this fall a reasonable response.
Savarese, Threadgill and Mackey are all smart men searching for the right answer. So is my friend the doctor/high school football enthusiast.
The word “ludicrous” coming from him is sobering for me and should be for everyone else trying to do what’s best for our state.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays on the new Sports Talk 99.5 from 7-10 a.m.
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