Dougherty: For high school sports to continue, we need to do more than trust the process

Mike Dougherty
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Athletes know well the potential of momentum.

There was no return to normal during this abbreviated fall season. Exposures and quarantines have resulted in awkward stops and starts, but each practice and each contest did provide student-athletes with a measure of routine in the midst of an unpredictable pandemic.   

We’re into the playoffs now.

North Salem's Michael Lulaj (24) and Byram Hills' Derek Araki-Kurdyla (19) battle for ball control during boys soccer action at Byram Hills High School in Armonk Nov. 14, 2020. Byram Hills won the game 5-0.

There were no guarantees when the season got under way, so we need to celebrate the individuals who made this happen before the last whistle blows. Nothing short of a standing ovation is acceptable for administrators, staff members and coaches across the state.

Well done.

At the same time, we must acknowledge the fact that somewhere along the way, momentum has changed hands. Turns out, that second wave is legit. All of the metrics in New York that seemed to indicate progress in the battle to curb the virus have quickly reversed.  

It’s right to be concerned.

The sports calendar has already been juggled, prompting worry that a delay of any length could threaten winter sports that have been classified high-risk in the state like basketball, wrestling and hockey. Low-risk sports have already been given the go-ahead by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but swimming, indoor track and bowling may struggle to gain access to off-campus facilities.  

Unless there’s a stunning improvement, a Nov. 30 start date for high-risk winter sports is likely to be pushed back.

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There is some wiggle room.

“I don’t think I’m to the point of talking about losing winter sports,” NYSPHSAA executive director Robert Zayas said. “I’m realistic in understanding the fact that the calendar we have in place is subject to change. It’s based on a situation that continues to develop. … The winter season is the longest of the three seasons and we certainly have more flexibility to get contests in.”

A season could be salvaged even if the first day of practice is postponed until early January.

Hang on tightly to that glimmer of hope.

Ivy Levitas of Clarkstown North is sandwiched by Megan MacMillan and Shannon McGovern of North Rockland during a varsity soccer game at Clarkstown North High School Nov. 10, 2020. North Rockland defeated Clarkstown North 2-0.

Going to school

The likely pause we’re about to experience will provide a moment to look back and review all of the protocols. Frankly, the execution was occasionally lacking.

“I think we just need to be more diligent,” Zayas said. “We can always learn from what happened. I think emphasizing the importance of face coverings, emphasizing the importance of social distancing and continuing to work closely with our local departments of health, those are things we should continue to do and continue to improve upon.”

Yes, the masks are a source of constant friction.

Face coverings are uncomfortable to wear in the grocery store. They are even more of an issue running full speed in an athletic contest.

We had several teams committed to keeping their noses and mouths covered outside of socially-distanced breaks. Some did it because it was the responsible thing to do. Some did it because they knew a teammate or coach was going home to a family member at risk.

It went the other way, too.

A number of teams were called out when individuals wore masks below the chin. We had one traditional soccer power celebrate Senior Day with parents, grandparents and siblings posing for a traditional photo shoulder-to-shoulder on the field.

The maximum number of spectators was also exceeded.

We aren’t likely to get consistent behavior until the state department of health expands the language used in the sports protocols and narrows the escape clause that is now liberally employed.

How do we determine if athletes are unable to tolerate a mask?

“People need to be better informed about what the department of health guidance actually says,” Zayas added. “There is so much confusion. What they say is, if you cannot maintain six feet of social distance during participation, you must wear a face covering, unless the student cannot tolerate the face covering during physical activity. We, as a high school athletic association, are not going to make DOH guidance more restrictive. That’s not something we are capable of doing.”

Individual districts can raise the level of expectation, though.

According to NYSPHSAA executive director Robert Zayas, sports, if allowed, will look different in the fall. How different will be determined in the weeks ahead.

Level the playing field

Enforcement has also been suspect on the club side, where most athletes take masks off when they step inside the lines for practice and games. Some of these organizations have been traveling across state lines to compete since August.

Raise your hand if you’re been to Spooky Nook recently.

It’s a legitimate concern for the entire student population if those athletes happen to be in the classroom again on Monday.

“The rules are the same for club and high school sports,” Zayas said. “There’s a jurisdiction issue. Our schools are abiding by the DOH guidance as it’s written. I don’t oversee club and rec programs, but the amount of club activity that I see taking place on any given weekend is something that is troubling and could negatively impact our ability to start high school sports if these clubs are going to take it upon themselves to travel across the Northeast and be irresponsible.”

Whatever happens next, Gov. Cuomo must align the rules and the calendar for high school and club sports. And if we can somehow keep the metrics below crisis stage, find a way to get these kids with their high school and club teams for practices if another pause is coming.

Locking the fields didn’t work. Most of them congregated in parks and backyards for workouts all spring and summer. A little supervision might actually lower the curve.

There simply isn’t a lot of transparency from the governor when it comes to interscholastic sports. Recently, he's been enlisting help from state budget director Robert Mujica when the subject comes up. That’s reason enough to raise an eyebrow.

Are they seeking input from the NYSPHSAA?

“We are certainly in direct communication with the governor’s office and the department of health,” Zayas said. “I monitor social media and I see people who are very ill-informed. I’m not one to give a play-by-play of what I did today, but we are in direct communication with our state officials. We are working with them, but again, there is an awful lot of confusion about where does high school sports fall on the priority list and the hierarchy of need during a COVID crisis. Right now, cases are going up, hospitalizations are going up. That certainly doesn’t help our advocacy efforts.”

Clearly, we’re going to have to exercise patience, again.

So enjoy the playoffs, keep each other safe, celebrate each game regardless of the outcome, thank everyone involved profusely and keep those sanitized fingers crossed.

Mike Dougherty covers boys soccer, boys lacrosse, girls basketball and golf for The Journal News/ He can be reached at, or on Twitter @hoopsmbd, @lohudlacrosse, @lohudhoopsmbd and @lohudgolf.