The upcoming high school football season in Connecticut is still clouded with varied opinions and outlooks on if it will happen in the fall, spring, or at all.
The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference released a plan at the end of last month to bring back all fall sports, including football, on Sept. 23, and an abbreviated season would bring fall competition to a close on Nov. 15. But nearly a month later, we’ve had multiple twists and turns that involved recommendations to move the season to spring, a vote against that recommendation and a decision to move forward as scheduled, followed by a halt in all conditioning workouts as the CIAC continues to meet and determine where to go from here.
Some more clarity could be found in the coming week, as the CIAC’s Board of Control is scheduled to meet on Sunday night to put together a revised plan for fall sports, which it will then submit to the Department of Public Health for review.
As fall sports continue to be delayed (though the CIAC will ask DPH to allow fall sports conditioning to resume this week), one certainty is that the season, whenever it starts, or if it starts, will bring plenty of changes and deviations from typical fall Friday nights. Student-athletes will have to bring their own water bottles, girls volleyball teams will no longer switch benches in between sets, and the majority of visiting locker rooms will be closed off.
But one of the most important changes, should the fall sports season happen, will be an adjusted mindset, and a critical shift from a long-lasting triumph in the realm of sport: playing through pain.
The examples of such moments seen through the lens of heroism can be found all over. Michael Jordan battling flu-like symptoms in the 1997 NBA Finals, or Kirk Gibson hobbling around the bases after hitting a dramatic home run in the 1988 World Series. The list goes on and on, where athletes were revered for battling an ailment and still giving everything they had to lead their team to victory.
That mindset, particularly when it comes to illness, will have no place on the field or court this fall, should high school sports make their return. And should the season get the green light and begin next month, the CIAC and its member schools hope its student-athletes will be smart in internalizing this necessary change in mindset.
“That would follow what the school's policy and protocols are,” CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini said. “If the person is exhibiting any symptoms, it's really important for our kids to be taught this year more than any that if you're not feeling well, you need to stay home. This isn't a normal season where kids should try to push themselves to play. We need to coach our kids very strongly that that's not the scenario.”
Playing through pain and the concept of self-sacrifice in sport has been around since the idea of Muscular Christianity surfaced nearly 200 years ago. It’s continued into modern sport and has never left. But now more than ever, student-athletes in Connecticut will be asked to speak up if they’re feeling ill. The CIAC won’t have the regular Covid-19 testing capabilities that have been set up across professional sports, meaning a lot of the responsibility will be on the student-athlete to assess any symptoms honestly before suiting up for a game or match. Part of the protocols for the CIAC’s current fall sports plan includes taking athletes’ temperature and a long list of other symptoms to be logged before beginning competition. But aside from body temperature, other symptoms on the CIAC’s checklist like headache, loss of smell and fatigue will require transparency from the student-athlete, and that transparency will be crucial in avoiding a potential coronavirus spread.
“You have kids that take a lot of pride in their attendance, and if they have a runny nose or a sore throat, they're going to fight through that,” Lungarini said. “But this year, we really have to teach kids that you stay home in that scenario, and if you exhibit any of those symptoms, you need to contact your primary care physician and follow whatever they instruct at that point.”
Many local athletes expressed their desire to play this fall in the form of a peaceful protest outside the CIAC offices last week, which was organized by Southington football quarterback Brady Lafferty. Lungarini, who talked with Lafferty at the protest, hopes that if the CIAC’s modified plan is approved and fall sports are once again back on for a September start, Connecticut student-athletes will think about more than just wins and losses when arriving to the field. This season will be just as much about the team on the opposing sideline, the families they will return home to after the game, and keeping things as safe as possible during competition. That will require an adjustment from a mindset that has spanned generations, though one that could be detrimental to sports in the era of Covid-19.
“A lot of that responsibility of having the experiences that so many people lost last year rests on our students,” Lungarini said. “The challenge is there, but we saw incredible leadership from our kids throughout this. Sports have been active in Connecticut since June 17, and in that, our numbers in Connecticut continue to improve. We have a lot to be grateful for with the leadership of our students, but we can't stop now.”