CHESHIRE — When Brady Lafferty looked at the cameras, and then looked at the group of student-athletes in front of him, his message didn’t change.
The two moments were more than an hour apart Thursday as he and a few dozen others stood outside the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference offices in Cheshire campaigning for a return to high school sports competition hours before state health and high school sports officials were set to meet to discuss the fate the upcoming fall season amid the coronavirus pandemic. But each time, Southington’s starting quarterback spoke the same five words: “We want our voices heard.”
“We haven’t been talked to at all about this process,” said Lafferty, who organized the event. “It’s been up the Department of Health, the CIAC, the coaches, the schools. Why not get the players’ voices heard too?”
“We weren’t expecting anything to change,” he added later. “But we wanted the CIAC to know what we thought about the situation.”
That situation regarding the fall sports season has gone through a number of back-and-forth decisions, particularly over the last week. Even after the CIAC’s football committee recommended moving the sport to the spring, the CIAC Board of Control announced its plans to continue with high school sports in the fall last Wednesday. Then the DPH released a statement recommending against playing football and volleyball in the fall, as well as postponing the start of any interscholastic sport activities until at least two weeks after schools begin in-person learning again.
Two days later, the CIAC voted to put high school sports back on hold, including conditioning and practices.
“It’s been a roller coaster to be honest,” said Ryan Andrews, Lafferty’s left tackle. “Every time we heard we have a season and we’re all amped up, and we’re like it’s time to get to the grindstone. We knew what we’re going to have to do. Then when it gets reversed, it’s not easy to regroup as a team and think about, ‘Hey, we’re going to be training soon. Don’t know when. Hey, we’re going to have a season. Don’t know when.’ All the uncertainly doesn’t stop; hopefully, it does soon.”
“Everyone else I’ve talked to, they have the same opinions,” he added. “I’ve talked to kids from Bristol Eastern, Central, Plainville and they all want to play.”
Many who gathered at the CIAC offices Thursday expressed those same feelings as they met with CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini, who went over the governing body’s decision making process with student-athletes, coaches and parents, and what the CIAC had hoped to learn from state health officials, whom the CIAC met with for more than two hours Thursday night.
“It’s important to be able to play,” said Izzo Lizardi, a senior football and track athlete at Hall. “It’s not just a sport for us, it created our character, to become more determined, more resilient about life in general. So many sports have helped shape us who we are today. Not just physically, but mentally as well. Coronavirus has been a mental roller coaster… it’s been day-by-day and it really makes us appreciate the little things.”
Sean Polinsky, a Lewis Mills football player, said, “It’s been an opportunity for us to create bonds that we never would have made before. I know a lot of kids here and across the state are working really hard to try to make this the best season possible… It means so much to step on the field with our brothers and we just want an opportunity to have that family bond one more time.”
But by the end of Thursday's meeting, no decision had been made between the high school sports governing body and the DPH.
"The meet allowed the CIAC to better understand the change in DPH's position and recommendations for interscholastic athletics from late July to their August 13, 2020 letter," the CIAC said in a statement afterward. "[Friday], the ReOpen CT Rules Committe, as part of their meeting, will discuss the inconsistency between DPH recommendations for CIAC interscholastic athletics and non-CIAC santioned sports activities. The CIAC welcomes the additional diaglogue that will continue follwoing the rules committee meeting."
The CIAC's Board of Control is scheduled to meet Friday morning to go over Thursday's meeting with the DPH.
"The CIAC will update our membership and student-athletes after our Board of Control has had an opportunity to review the information learned in [Friday's] discussion," the organization said in its statement.
Acting DPH commissioner Deidre Gifford said at Gov. Ned Lamont’s Thursday press conference the department is taking into consideration the balance of the risk of a covid-19 spread with sports for kids.
“The fact that students are going to be gathering in large numbers in schools, which they haven’t been doing over the summer, that’s a consideration,” she said. “We want to make sure that we keep our schools open as much as we possibly can for in-person learning and that in-person social and emotional growth, which is so important to kids of all ages.”
Lungarini said earlier in the day the CIAC’s stance on playing sports this fall hasn’t changed and believes the state’s covid-19 metrics support that. But he also told those in attendance the organization wants to make sure those participating in sports are safe doing so, hence the CIAC following the DPH recommendations and pausing all activities until Aug. 23.
He’d also like to see a consistency for all sports — club and scholastic — as mentioned in the CIAC's statement. Under Lamont’s reopening plan, sports and fitness facilities were allowed to reopen on June 17, including youth sports. The New Britain Bees, a team in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, began playing on games on July 2 and has played games in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The Connecticut Elite Baseball Association played games in lieu of an American Legion season.
“We just have to be willing to accept that metrics and information are going to change on a daily basis,” Lungarini said. “What we want, as much as possible, is to give directions to our kids, coaches and schools on how to proceed with the fall.”
According to the Center for Disease Control, Connecticut has had 51,314 cases of covid-19, considerably lower than states such as Alabama (111,478), Tennessee (137,800), Oklahoma (54,132), Indiana (82,336) and Missouri (70,675) which were among 14 states which opted to begin fall sports on time. Others such as Florida (577,891), Texas (557,256), Georgia (243,982), Illinois (213,221), New Jersey (188,427), Pennsylvania (126,149) and Ohio (110,881), have already opted to go with a shortened schedule and have either started practicing or are scheduled to do so within the next four weeks. New Jersey announced Monday schools that reopen with remote classes can participate in high school sports this fall.
Lungarini also addressed football and what disadvantages players would be at it the season were further postponed or canceled, calling the situation “unique.” Unlike other sports, football does not have AAU or club teams players can turn to if there is no high school season and suggested the CIAC could hold a combine or a 7-on-7 league, as was done in the summer, as a couple of possibilities, though nothing has been set. New Haven and Bridgeport have already postponed football.
“What we want to understand better is how covid impacts that 10-19 demographic of African American and Latino students to see if they are a group that is more high risk,” Lungarini said. “We also don’t want to actively promote a situation where some of our urban settings are not going to be able to play, but some of our rural and suburban setting can. Hopefully that demonstrates to people just how detailed we’re looking into this… It’s a piece we’re aware of. We don’t want our urban settings sitting on the sidelines.”
All the players, coaches and parents can do now is wait and see — just a little bit longer.
“We’re just continuing to stay optimistic,” Lafferty said. “That’s all we can do. But we don’t know.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org