Thousands of Minnesota high school football and volleyball players are getting back in the game starting next Monday.
The Minnesota State High School League on Monday approved fall seasons for both sports, reversing a decision it made seven weeks ago to make them wait until next spring because of COVID-19 concerns.
The highly anticipated outcome drew more than 400 listeners to the league’s virtual board meeting, where they heard impassioned dialogue among league staff and the 18 voting board members about measuring the pandemic’s risks.
The board’s action came against a backdrop of a national public outcry calling for football to resume. Board members were bolstered by responses to a fresh league survey of its member schools last week that found overwhelming support for playing football (80%) and volleyball (76%) this fall.
The most popular boys’ and girls’ high school sports, as measured by participation, will play shorter seasons that are likely to end without traditional state tournaments.
A football season of six games was approved by a 14-4 vote, with practice starting Sept. 28, along with a postseason whose format will be determined Oct. 1 at the next board of directors meeting. First games would be Oct. 9. The season would end Nov. 28 — the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
The volleyball season, approved by a 15-3 vote, also starts with practices on Monday. An 11-week season was approved with 14 matches starting Oct. 8.
“Today’s decision, based on what we currently know and with the unknowns of what spring will bring, is based on the belief that playing now provides us the best opportunity to play a football and volleyball season,” said Blaine Novak, board president and New York Mills superintendent.
Novak ramped up the need for a special meeting after considerable sentiment for revisiting the board’s decision. Had the meeting not been called, the board’s next regular meeting is not until Oct. 1, which some viewed as too late to consider a possible restart to football with winter approaching.
But concerns about virus transmission linger, owing in part to football’s high level of contact and volleyball’s indoor setting.
Asked by a board member during the meeting if anything has changed since the Aug. 4 decisions, Dr. William Roberts, chairman of the league’s sports medicine advisory committee, replied, “From our perspective, no, it hasn’t changed much.”
What has changed is that all states surrounding Minnesota are now playing high school fall this fall. Last week the Big Ten Conference reversed course and will attempt a fall football season.
A parent-led group called Let Them Play MN has sought to bring public pressure via social media. It also held a peaceful protest outside the governor’s residence on Sept. 12. Group organizer Dawn Gillman, a football mom in Dassel-Cokato, made a plea for restarting football and volleyball at the start of the board meeting on Monday.
Within the league, associate director Bob Madison shared his belief in a virtual meeting last week that schools provide student-athletes with the best supervision and protocol follow-through. On Monday morning, two board members who serve as high school activities directors, Gary Revenig of Monticello and John Ostrowski of Dover-Eyota, heightened the urgency. They lobbied to start the football season later that afternoon.
Other board members relented. Three voted no to starting both football and volleyball this fall: Amanda Kaus, who represents the Minnesota Music Educators Association; Ceil McDonald, head of the South St. Paul High School speech program, and Frank White, a governor appointee.
Based on Roberts’ remarks, McDonald questioned whether anything had changed.
Though he voted yes to football, Dustin Bosshart, principal and football coach at St. Clair High School, challenged league Executive Director Erich Martens to make a recommendation to the board. He said in August, Martens recommended moving football and volleyball to the spring.
On Monday, Martens said, “I believe this board has the capacity to discuss the best plan going forward.”
Jan Malcolm, Minnesota Department of Health commissioner, acknowledged the “risk calculation” of trade-offs inherent to the league’s decision, which came on the heels of record state levels of COVID-19 case numbers as students returned to class this month.
“We know there’s a lot of viral activity, it’s at a high enough level that we would prefer not to have events that would just gather more people and create more opportunities for transmission,” Malcolm said Monday. “However, we know outdoor environments are safer, and we certainly know how important these activities are to the student athletes, to their families and to the community.”
There’s also no guarantee that waiting until March to play football and volleyball would have been any safer than playing next month.
“I don’t think we can forecast whether the risk will be greater or lesser by next March,” Malcolm said. “We certainly hope it’s less for a whole bunch of reasons. But there’s just so much unknown about the further trajectory of virus,” as well as the potential for reinfection and how it meshes with the seasonal influenza.
Health officials have emphasized that while games and practices carry risk, they are equally concerned about the socialization that accompanies sports, which highlights a need to use masks and comply with social distancing.
Football and volleyball will follow the same health department guidelines that have been in place for other high school sports since they began in August. No spectators are allowed at indoor events in school facilities and outdoor games can have a maximum of 250 fans.
In a statement, Martens said, “It will be critical that our schools do their very best to enact protocols that maximize the safety of our students, coaches and officials.”