One week into an abbreviated winter sports season, the wearing of masks by Minnesota high school athletes has generated frustration from schools and officials about uneven compliance during games.
The Minnesota State High School League addressed the issue during a virtual meeting Thursday with school representatives. League officials reiterated that the mask mandate is accompanied by expectations of 100% compliance by the hundreds of teams and thousands of athletes competing across the state.
League associate director Bob Madison said most schools and teams playing basketball and hockey were in compliance with the directive handed down for youth sports by the Minnesota Department of Health in late December.
Madison said the commitment to compliance was reconfirmed in response to "frustrations raised by member schools, and officials, to make sure the rule is understood and schools follow them to the letter of the law."
Since games resumed Jan. 14, some athletes have played at times with face masks below their nose or mouth, sometimes resting on their chin. While spectator attendance is limited by COVID-19 guidelines to no more than 150 people in gyms and rinks, many livestreamed games reach considerably bigger audiences.
The league's stance is that athletic directors and coaches share the obligation to ensure masks are worn, while officials have the final say on how masks are worn during games.
"They all have a role," Madison said. "ADs set the tone for wearing them and coaches enforce that they are being worn properly. It's up to the coaches to make sure your athlete is properly equipped. That's straight from the [National Federation of State High School Associations] rule book and goes for everything, like mouth guards and untucked jerseys, as well as masks."
One of Minnesota's leading officials organizations said Thursday that officials have adopted a three-step process for addressing improperly worn masks, preferring to be instructive rather than punitive.
"We're going to attack them with kindness and understanding because this is new for everyone," said Craig Laird, head clinician for Gopher State Officials. "We're only a few days into this."
The first time an official notices a player wearing a mask improperly, the official will wait until a dead-ball situation and then mention it to all the players, encouraging them to remember to "mask up," Laird said.
"We're not out to single anyone out or embarrass them," he said.
The second time, the official will mention the violation directly to the player and the coach. A third time, the official will wait for a dead-ball and request a substitution.
"So far, players have been trying to play within the rules. Some are having a little more difficulty than others," Laird said. "But we haven't had any backlash or [defiant] verbiage directed toward us. It's been very positive. Players are doing the best they can."
Laird expects rule violations to dwindle as players grow more accustomed to masks. "After the second week, you should see a tightening of the rules,'' he said. "Now you've had two weeks to understand what we're looking for."
Mask-wearing was not required during fall sports but became a mandate as youth and high school winter sports resumed practices on Jan. 4.
The group Let Them Play MN, advocates for revoking the mask mandate, contend that state officials "rigged the data to make youth sports seem unsafe'' this week in a Facebook post.
Minneapolis lawyer Sam Diehl, representing the group, filed a brief Tuesday in U.S. District Court in support of a lawsuit alleging that youth athletes were unfairly singled out for political reasons. The brief argues that Walz and the health department manipulated data to bolster virus concerns in youth sports. It also accused Walz of "willful blindness, at best'' toward outbreaks in retail and workplace settings.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, in a statement Thursday, said Walz "has relied on science and epidemiology in dialing restrictions up and down dynamically as needed to protect the public health.''
He added that his office "has successfully defended the legality and constitutionality'' of all of the governor's executive orders related to the pandemic "including in an earlier version of this lawsuit. I will continue to do so."
High school sports editor Paul Klauda contributed to this report.