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Mike Anthony: We’re still overlooking what’s realistic and most important in Connecticut high school sports

Right below group hugs with strangers and crowded bars on the Don’t Be Stupid 2020 List is amateur contact sports.

We don’t need the games. We shouldn’t have the games. High school football and soccer, in particular, have no place in a pandemic landscape that has only grown uglier and more dangerous in the past five months.

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Even in Connecticut, where COVID-19 transmission rates are low, there’s no justification for an effort to ensure that Fridays and Saturdays from late September to mid-November include High School A and High School B huddling and colliding and tackling and swapping spit, breathing and sweating all over each other.

We can’t afford school vs. school, bus ride after bus ride, hundreds of away games, all the aggravating factors that come with continually crossing borders to have dozens from one town share space with dozens from another. It is not worth any risk or any infection, period, and a shift to regional scheduling does little if anything to make the situation any more rational.

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Yet here was the CIAC on Friday with an announcement that was — sort of — a game-on declaration, a “fluid document” that set the general structure for a fall sports season shortened by about one-third and pushed back about two weeks. As if coronavirus spread is drastically limited by football teams, for instance, playing six regular season games instead of 10. As if we’ve seen the COVID threat substantially decrease — or decrease at all, nationally — in two-week increments.

The CIAC’s plan is “in a perpetual state of evaluation” and “will be updated as more data, health metrics and sport specific information becomes available,” and the governing body of high school sports in our state “will adjust offerings as appropriate, including the stop of interscholastic athletics, should the health metrics direct that action.”

That’s important. Friday’s announcement was just the latest if-we-play-this-is-what-it-will-look-like skeleton, but it also signaled a push for a return to sports, all sports, when we don’t even know if kids will be in the classroom full time or even part time. We’re establishing a framework by coming at this from the wrong directions, working in reverse order, and like so much else in 2020 it makes little sense.

In March, the CIAC was so proactive and so spot-on accurate in calling for the abrupt cancellation of winter championships and dealt with surrounding outrage born of a lack of understanding for what awaited the world. The group later pulled the plug on spring sports altogether. The leaders in Cheshire taking another controversial, but appropriate, stance in halting any plans for contact sports in the fall would have been equally brave, prudent, a bold statement that it’s time to take a breath while higher powers work on more important issues.

This is a time for a dedication to intramurals, at most. Yes, I know youth sports have been taking place since June, but exposure possibility is exponentially higher with thousands interacting on fields and then in schools, the reality of the high school model. As students and families and educators await word from the top — from Gov. Ned Lamont — on a definitive plan for schooling, we need to step back from an exploration of what sports could look like. Why force them into an Etch a Sketch of a life situation?

The CIAC’s plan was devised through consultation with numerous outfits tied to education, athletics and health, including the Connecticut State Medical Society Sports Medicine Committee, the State Department of Education and the Department of Public Health. As those conversations went on privately, others took place publicly.

Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said recently of bubble scenarios, “It’s harder to do at the collegiate level. It’s even harder at the high school level. Quite frankly, I would prioritize getting students back into the classroom before I introduce extracurricular activities.”

Dr. Sten Vermund, a pediatrician, epidemiologist and the dean of the Yale School of Public Health, told The Courant last week, “The whole concept of hygiene is kind of irrelevant on the sports field. At the end of the day, physical distancing is not possible.”

Dr. Ezekial Emanuel, part of the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group, said Thursday, “I think contact sports are not a good idea. You can’t have a bubble in high school. You have transportation; you have a lot of things that are going to complicate having a football season. I think for one year, we’re probably going to have to take a miss on it.”

Push most everything off the athletic docket for calendar year 2020.

Or just allow athletic operations to proceed as they normally would — without games.

I know I just pulled the chain on a light bulb that many of you will want to break over my head, but hear me out.

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Conversation supporting the need for the resumption of high school sports in the fall has centered largely on the well-being of student-athletes and all that is lost in the absence of organized athletics — structure, discipline, camaraderie, confidence and on and on with what’s obvious.

There it was again in the CIAC’s introduction to its plan, those sentiments buttressed by the contention that “in-person instruction, education-based interscholastic athletics, and other cocurricular activities … are critical to the cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and mental health of our students.”

No doubt. No question. No argument here. Sports, for many, are the backbone of an adolescent foundation and educational experience and, yes, thousands of kids have already been robbed of something irreplaceable.

So set sports off and running, to an extent. We need the programs, the coaches, the teammates, the teaching, the learning, the coming together, the self-discovery, the experience. We just don’t need the actual games right now.

Practice, gather, learn, teach, plan — and devote would-be game days to intrasquad scrimmages or even group community service initiatives voted on by team members. Make what you can of a situation still worth embracing. We want our students, first and foremost, to receive a diversified education and rewarding experience, and that can be accomplished without the few hours of actual competition, without the thrill of victory or sting of defeat, without finding out which teams fit into inevitably bizarre playoff scenarios that haven’t even yet been developed.

Recent statistics show increasing numbers of COVID infections in a younger demographic, and the concerns here extend beyond the argument that those young people are at such a low risk to become dangerously ill. One kid, perhaps asymptomatic, picks up the virus and so does another and then COVID is snaking its way through two households and maybe two towns, not to mention any number of referees or coaches or support staff at peril throughout the whole process.

No games? What’s the point?

The point is not to push this pandemic in ways it shouldn’t be pushed, in ways that put large groups at risk, in ways that threaten to further complicate our decidedly complicated lives.

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Columnist Mike Anthony can be reached at manthony@courant.com.

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