Traditional football games will not be played this fall under an agreement reached Thursday by state officials and the Maine Principals’ Association. The MPA says it will work with schools to provide opportunities for those athletes, such as 7-on-7 flag football or punt, pass and kick competitions. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The Maine Principals’ Association will not offer football or volleyball this fall but will proceed with all other high school sports, including golf, cross country, field hockey and soccer.

In a joint announcement Thursday afternoon with Gov. Janet Mills’ administration, the MPA announced it had come to an agreement with state officials on all COVID-19 safety protocols for resuming high school sports during the pandemic.

But football, classified as a high-risk activity in state and national guidelines, and volleyball, the only indoor fall sport, will not be offered. In an email to member schools, the principals association said it would “continue to work with both sport committees to try and provide a season in the late winter/early spring.”

Official team practices for the others sports are scheduled to begin on Monday, but even then the final decision on whether a school participates in the fall will be a local decision. Four school districts have already opted out of fall sports.

“These are the guidelines for what we feel are a safe return to sports during a pandemic,” said Mike Burnham, executive director of the MPA. “But the final decision can’t come from this office. That comes at the local level.”

The association also announced that for schools in any counties that carry a yellow or red designation on the Department of Education’s color-coded system “there should be no practices or games held until which time they are designated green.” York County is currently designated as yellow.

Other changes to the fall season include: no indoor practices; crowd size for outdoor events is limited to 100 people, including athletes, coaches and officials; all athletes (other than those in the game), coaches, staff, officials and fans must wear a mask.

The announcement ended a weekslong, drawn-out process that involved the principals association and several state agencies. The start of the fall season, twice delayed since Aug. 17, has frustrated athletes and coaches. Others have questioned whether interscholastic sports could hamper efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus.

While the principals association will seek to offer football and volleyball later in the school year, Burnham said even that’s not guaranteed. Speaking specifically about spring football, he said, “I don’t think at this stage I have an answer for that. Our football committee is committed to continue to work with the Maine Football Coaches Association to see how we can make this happen. I think right now we’re open to any ideas and suggestions how we can have spring football offerings, that includes tackle football.

“Obviously at this point, with where we are at, we understand it would take some type of change of circumstances for that to happen.”

By that Burnham means the coronavirus pandemic, which has shut Maine high school sports down since April 9, will have to be under control or the state would have to revise its Community Sports guidelines around football.

The principals group said it will work with schools to provide opportunities for football and volleyball players, such as 7-on-7 flag football or punt, pass and kick competitions. Volleyball, it noted, could be played outdoors.

“Certainly you feel bad for the athletes that participate in football and volleyball, but we couldn’t offer those activities,” Burnham said. “Our recommendation for schools is that they try to find a way to keep the kids engaged in any of these activities or encourage the kids to try other activities.”

Cape Elizabeth volleyball coach Sarah Boeckel had mixed feelings about Thursday’s news.

“I understand we are the one indoor sport,” she said. “But I don’t understand how one sport is safer than another. In soccer you’re just as close to another player. To me, soccer is almost as aggressive as football.

“But (if) we can gather and play (outside), I’m glad for that. (If) they don’t take that away from us, then that is fantastic.”

Burnham noted that there will not be any state championships in soccer or field hockey, and that the MPA is working on championships for golf and cross country.

Maine becomes the 19th state, along with the District of Columbia, to postpone tackle football this fall. New Hampshire is the only New England state that will play football this fall. Thirty-seven states have modified their fall seasons in response to the pandemic.

South Portland football coach Aaron Filieo, a vocal proponent of playing football this fall, said “(I) can’t wrap my head around” why Maine, with one of the nation’s lowest COVID-19 rates, isn’t playing football this fall when over 30 other states have begun or plan to begin playing the sport, especially after the principals association made a decision on Aug. 27 to sponsor football.

“How is it with other states with high COVID numbers, with over 1,000 games played and no community outbreaks, we’re not playing?” Filieo said. “So I’m just curious to know what the reasoning and rationale is behind the decisions being made? How is it the MPA makes a decision and Augusta completely hijacks their finding? I just think we need some answers to that. The lack of communication and transparency through this has been abhorrent.”

Wells football coach Tim Roche said he had held out little hope of playing football this fall after the state rebuffed the MPA’s decision to play all sports. Roche said tough decisions needed to be made with education the priority.

“One of things you always have to remember, while sports are vital – vital, absolutely vital to kids and everyone in America – education has to be the first step in this thing. It can’t be athletics,” Roche said. “When our forefathers wrote that every American has a right to education, they didn’t say you have a right to have football.”

Dan Lebowitz, the executive director at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, said the decision to delay the football season was a good one.

“I think it is a right decision, moving it to the spring when we will have more data about how we can keep those kids safe,” he said. “The kids don’t lose their season and if we have more data we can proceed more safely. Emotion says to play (football) now … but proceeding with caution and deciding to play with caution is the right thing to do.”

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, was asked about high school sports in his Thursday media briefing. He said, in regards to whether a sport should be played, “There’s not a single answer because there’s not a single sport. If we have learned one thing it’s that there are ways to do risky things safer. … And that’s what’s got to be the goal for us right now.”

Dr. William Heinz is chair of the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee, which two weeks ago recommended that all sports be played this fall. He said Thursday he was pleased that some sports got the go-ahead to play, “but disappointed we couldn’t get them all in.”

He added, “I understand. The risk (for football and volleyball) is too high and I completely understand the viewpoint of the state that we’re not going to take those chances.”

The principals association began working with the Maine Department of Education in the spring on how to resume high school sports, devising a four-stage approach for allowing coaches to begin conditioning workouts with players starting in early July. Later that month, it started working on detailed plans for the fall season.

On Aug. 26, the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee made its recommendation to approve all sports. A day later, its Interscholastic Management Committee accepted that recommendation, and sent the association’s updated safety guidelines to the state for review.

On Sept. 1, state officials responded by saying the principals association failed to follow the state’s COVID-19 safety guidelines in several instances in its plan for the return of sports and recommended it again delay the start of fall sports to address those issues.

Since then, the principals group has been working with state officials to come to a consensus on what fall sports can be played, and under what safety guidelines. Those guidelines, which included a sport-by-sport breakdown, were released Thursday. Burnham noted that his organization worked with the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine School Boards Association to come up with the guidelines.

“Now that the MPA guidelines have been shown to align with CDC standards, we’re going to move forward with each of our programs as allowed by the MPA,” said Andrew Dolloff, superintendent of Yarmouth schools.

“It’s too bad that some students won’t get to play the sport of their choice this fall, but maybe they’ll have a shot at that later in the year – it’s another one of the sacrifices we are all making to ensure everyone’s safety.”

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming contributed to this report.

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